On This Day: 'Holy Grail' of ballooning in first transatlantic flight

·Contributor
·3 min read
(Original Caption) Exterior view of the Double Eagle II over the Normany Coast.
Exterior view of the Double Eagle II over the Normany Coast (Getty)

When Double Eagle II landed in a barley field near Paris, it was the first-ever transatlantic balloon flight, a feat which balloonists had been attempting since 1859. 

At least seven people had died in the attempt - and some of them were never found. 

At the time, the flight across the Atlantic was considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of ballooning accomplishments.

The three American pilots - Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman - had set off from Maine on August 11, and had faced difficulties including clouds blocking out the sun and affecting the buoyancy of their balloon, Double Eagle II. 

At one point, the balloon had become covered in 200 pounds of ice, but it was melted by the morning sun the next day. 

In contrast to previous attempts to cross the Atlantic, the crew had used oxygen, allowing them to fly higher.

The team had learnt from their own experience, Max Anderson told National Geographic. He said, “Success in any venture is just the intelligent application of failure.”

As they had passed over England, the men’s wives had flown close enough to the helium balloon in a private plane to blow kisses to their husbands. 

18th August 1978:  Three American airmen arrive in Paris after crossing the Atlantic, 50 years after Lindbergh's flight, in their air balloon 'Double Eagle II', a voyage that took them more than five days. They are Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Three American airmen arrive in Paris after crossing the Atlantic in their air balloon 'Double Eagle II', a voyage that took them more than five days. They are Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

In the hours before they touched down, the three men had thrown most of their equipment ouf of the plane in an attempt to stay airborne - including a hang glider that Newman had hoped to glide down into Paris on.

When the crew decided they could fly no further, they hung the American and French flags from the side of the gondola and descended. 

Roads around the landing point were jammed with sightseers and souvenir hunters hoping to see the balloonists.

The team landed at 7.48 on August 17 in an empty field near Evreux in Normandy, 60 miles from Paris.

They had been flying for 137 hours and six minutes, and had lived off tinned sardines, hot dogs, salami and bagels. 

On landing, the team boarded a military helicopter, and met their wives in the American Embassy in Paris, where they were reserved rooms used by aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh. 

They were offered a flight home on supersonic plane Concorde. 

Three years later, Ben Abruzzo, Larry Newman, and Ron Clark would break another record, when their Double Eagle V crash-landed in California, becoming the first balloon to cross the Pacific.

In 2002, Steve Fossett, a commodities broker from Chicago who made a name for himself as an adventurer (with dozens of records to his name), became the first balloonist to fly around the world solo. 

He had failed five times in the attempt, nearly dying in 1998 when his balloon ruptured and he fell 29,000 feet into the Coral Sea. 

Fossett also accompanied British billionaire Richard Branson on balloon flights (but died in 2007 in a plane crash). 

Today, billionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson vie to fly into space instead, with both having launched flights to the edge of space in 2021. 

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