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This edited article about ballooning originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 190 published on 4 September 1965.
In these days, when men walk in space and ships land on the moon, is there anything new still to be tried on earth? There is. Only a few years ago four of us set off to do something never before attempted – balloon crossing of the Atlantic.
It started when Bushy Eiloart, my husband Colin, and I were discussing some transatlantic voyages we had made under sail. Colin remarked that they would all have been drier and much faster if we had been able to float in a balloon a hundred feet above the sea with the trade winds blowing us straight to our destination.
Two years later, we left England, a proper expedition under the patronage of the Duke of Edinburgh, with 45 tons of equipment, including 690 cylinders of gas, a balloon 46 feet in diameter, and a 15 ft. balloon gondola-cum-boat of unique design, bound for the Canary Islands from where we would take off.
Those two years were filled with work. We had to learn about balloons from the few balloonists left over from the great days of ballooning before the first World War. Bushy had to practise and take his examinations for a balloon pilot’s licence. Colin had to design the special balloon and the car, which we built ourselves. I was in charge of rations and photography, and Bushy’s son Tim, who had become the fourth member of the crew, was radio operator and meteorologist.
Traditionally, the balloon car is a wickerwork basket, ideal to take the shock of landing on solid ground and very light. This was no use to us as we were more likely to land in the sea, possibly far from the land, so we built ourselves a very light and strong car of foam plastics skinned with Terylene and epoxy resin which would not only stay afloat if landed on the sea, but was equipped with a small mast and sail. The balloon itself was made of Terylene coated with neoprene, silver on top to reflect the sun, and black underneath, with her name The Small World and air-registration letters painted on in bright orange.
Ballooning is simple in theory. You fill a large bag with gas, hang a net over it to suspend your car from, and there you are. The gas (we used hydrogen), being lighter than air, will want to rise and lift the car from the ground. The balloon pilot controls the height of his craft by a very delicate balance of the lift from the gas and the weight in the car. To ascend he throws out a little ballast and to descend he lets a little gas out of the bag by means of a valve. The balloon can travel only in the direction of the wind, and only as fast as the wind, and the only control the pilot has over direction is in ascending or descending to find winds of different directions.
We set up our balloon camp on the southern shores of Tenerife, where we could expect to ascend into the trade winds which always blow straight towards the West Indies, where we wanted to go. There were delays while we waited for the right conditions for take-off. Once we got the balloon half inflated, then a very strong wind blew up, and we spent terrible hours while it rubbed itself heart-breakingly on the sand.
The lull we were hoping for came at night, and in a babel of Spanish and English from friends and helpers, we took off. Scraping over the sand, splashing on the sea, we threw off ballast to send ourselves up, and at last, at 1.07 a.m. on December 12, 1958, swung up into the air. The sounds of voices died, and very quickly we were floating 300 feet up with only the shushing of the waves below. We had worked for two years for this moment, and at last we could try out in earnest all the instruments, equipment and devices we had worried and wrestled over for so long.
In theory, and in stable conditions, our 53,000 cubic feet of hydrogen would lift 3,600 lbs. In practice, conditions are never stable, and a constant watch has to be kept on the altimeter. Heat may expand the gas and cause you to rise, or a thermal (an upward current of air) may catch the balloon and lift her like a kite. The pilot drops ballast, usually sand, to stop the descent, and lets out gas to stop rising.
The skill comes in saving as much gas and ballast as possible and we had decided not to use sand for ballast but to pick up sea water. We would also use calcium hydride combined with sea water to produce additional hydrogen, and a pair of pedal operated horizontal propellers to force air downwards and so give a few precious pounds of lift. Hanging below the car we also had an 80 lb. trail rope which acted as an automatic break upon height – when dropped in the sea, the water took the weight, so lightening our load, and when lifted from the sea we gained useful extra pounds.
After our hectic take-off and the delight of finding ourselves actually flying, we began to organize things. Our first setback came when we discovered that the water-lifting bag tripped and emptied itself on the long Atlantic rollers. It took most of the next three days to devise a sock valve and get the system working efficiently. Meanwhile, we had suffered other moments of drama as we learnt transatlantic ballooning the hard way, eerily rising on one occasion in a thermal through mist and cold rain to 3,400 ft. before release of gas sent us rushing down to bounce crazily on the sea. We had agreed that we would consider all but essential equipment ballast, and in an emergency this meant we were prepared to, and did, throw overboard sleeping bags, propellers, radio transmitter, batteries, and non-essential stores.
By our fourth day we had things working well and even found time to take meteorological observations for the Imperial College of Science and Technology. With 1,200 miles behind us, we even dared to think we might manage to fly the next 1,500.
That night just before midnight we heard Bushy shout, “Get up, kids, we’re in another thermal!” All the experts had said that this sort of thing did not happen at night, but there we were, rushing up at 30 ft. a second, bucketing wildly from side to side like a swing at a funfair. I grasped the altimeter and called out the height. Bushy swung on the valve line to release gas. Tim climbed the tossing rope-ladder to cut the tied neck of the balloon – if the expanding gas could not get out, the balloon might burst. Colin collected every possible piece of ballast. We were going to need all we had to cushion our fall when it came!
At last, at 4,600 ft., the needle steadied. We began dropping – but too fast. We had lost too much gas to be able to fly on. We threw out everything possible. Bushy and Colin cut the safety fastenings to the quick releases which held the car to the balloon, and Bushy stood by the line ready to trip the releases. No one had ever done this before – it was not a thing you could practise but we had to part from our balloon before it dragged and capsized us on the sea.
At 900 ft. the altimeter light failed. As I cried out in frustration at being unable to see, Bushy shouted, “We are out of the cloud, I can see the water.” Calmly he waited until we were just a few feet above the waves, then pulled the release string, and we thumped on to the sea. Our balloon, freed from our weight, whipped into a cloud, never to be seen again.
After a record 94 1/2 hours in the air our ballooning was finished. Bushy, captain in the air, handed over his command to Colin now we were at sea. Colin had hurt his ankle on impact but otherwise we were safe and sound, though sick with exhaustion, emotion, and the roughness of the sea. Fifteen hundred miles lay between us and Barbados, but as sailing people we felt this was a more familiar element, and once the shock of parting with our balloon was over, we settled down to an uncomfortable but not too hazardous voyage, making about 75 miles a day. We had plenty of food and a sufficient supply of water. We rationed ourselves to half a pint each a day, keeping a small reserve in case the voyage took longer than we had estimated. We also had a small supply of silver nitrite salts which combine with sea water to produce drinkable water.
Our existence became one of steering, sleep and thoughts of cool liquids. We saw two ships and a submarine, but none apparently saw us. We spent Christmas day mending a broken tiller and on December 29 Tim’s birthday was celebrated, but not wildly. With limited water we ate very little, and everything was an effort. We had faith in Colin’s navigation, but he was cautious. At last he said we might see a light that night, if we were where he thought.
And we did. Next dawn showed the green island of Barbados, just where it should be. By tea-time our Small World was at anchor and we were ashore facing a tumultuous welcome from the delightful Barbadians, and a meal of soup, fish, fresh fruit, and bottles and bottles of cool drinks. Our sea-air voyage of “four days up and twenty days down was over.”