Falling upwards, p.2
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       Falling Upwards, p.2

           Richard Holmes
 

  Among the ‘distinguished assembly’ who witnessed the launch at Ranelagh Gardens was the Earl of Orford. He wrote anxiously to William Wyndham the following morning. ‘I am sorry to inform you that a Major Money ascended alone under the British Balloon at 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon. The balloon rose to a great height and took a direction towards the sea. It was seen entering over the ocean about a league south of Lowestoft at a very great height at six o’clock. By which circumstance I am greatly apprehensive for his thus continuing in the air, but that by some accident perhaps the String which connects to the valve was broken …’4

  Orford’s notion of a balloon controlled by a ‘string’ was a little simplistic; but he noted accurately that although the balloon ‘was not half full’, and that its lower part appeared to have suffered what he called ‘a collapsion’, it continued unchecked towards the horizon. Indeed, Money was struggling to rein in his balloon as if it were a runaway horse, but without success. It was only an hour later, when he was well out of sight of land, that the cooling night air finally deposited his balloon twenty miles off the Norfolk coast, in an area known on mariners’ charts as Long Sand, notorious for its shoals and shipwrecks.fn2 The balloon still had sufficient hydrogen to keep its basket partially above the waves. Waist-deep in water, Money began a long battle to remain afloat in a choppy sea as darkness fell.

  He soon abandoned his basket, cutting it loose and allowing it to sink beneath him, while climbing up into the balloon hoop and clinging onto the rigging. By skilfully playing the lines, he managed to hold sufficient gas in the balloon canopy to keep it partially inflated, pulling him slowly through water almost like a kite, and giving him just enough buoyancy to stay afloat. Increasingly cold and exhausted, Money hung on grimly hour after hour as the balloon steadily dragged him further and further out to sea through the darkness. As the gas slowly escaped, he sank gradually deeper into the water, until after four hours he was up to his chest, and almost incoherent with hypothermia.

  Several pleasure boats and fishing smacks had in fact set out after him, both from Yarmouth and further south from Southwold. Their crews were in sportive mood, playfully competing to find the airborne quarry. But as darkness fell they grew dispirited and bored, eventually giving up any hope of recovering him. One by one they turned to beat back into port, telling each other that he was either drowned or in Holland, which came to much the same thing. Agonisingly, it appears that Money had seen several of these ships. Their sails were clearly silhouetted on the western horizon behind him, dark against the dying summer light. But they were too far away, and he was now too weak even to shout. The water was colder, and the waves came up from his chest to his chin.

  But one determined coastguard cutter, the Argus, had set out from Lowestoft. Long before a regular lifeboat service was formed, this was a professional rescue vessel, its crew skilled in the pursuit of both smugglers and mariners in distress. A balloon was a new and interesting object for them to hunt. Its skipper skilfully put the wind dead astern and, making due allowance for tides, steadily followed exactly along the balloon’s last observed line of flight, with lookouts posted at his masthead. He knew that the moon was due to come up by late evening, and would illuminate the sea very well if he persisted.

  Just before midnight, after Major Money had been in the water for over five hours, the pale shape of his crumpled balloon canopy was spotted on the dark waves by the crew of the Argus. They came gently alongside, carefully disentangled his body from the rigging, and hauled him out of the water. As he was pulled aboard, he stirred, and they realised he was still conscious. Well-practised in revival techniques, the crew wrapped him in blankets, forced brandy down his throat, and had Major Money joking and telling his story by the time they were back in port the following dawn.5

  Money immediately became famous throughout East Anglia. The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital received a splendid donation. He was interviewed by the local journals, and became the subject of one of the most dramatic of all the early balloon prints, a mezzotint by Paul Renaigle, entitled The Perilous Situation of Major Money. It showed him heroically struggling with the flapping balloon canopy, half-immersed in the water, while a ship turns away from him under a stormy sky.

  Major Money remained undaunted by this experience. He later volunteered to command a French regiment at the Battle of Valmy, and for the first time saw balloons being used for observation on the battlefield. When he returned he was promoted General, and in 1803 published A Short Treatise on the Use of Balloons in Military Operations. This was unusual for a military manual, in that it included a number of balloon ideas set to verse:

  Great use, he thought, there might be made

  Of these machines in his own trade;

  Now o’er a fortress he might soar

  And its condition thence explore

  Or when by mountains, woods, or bog

  An enemy might lie incog

  Our friend would o’er their station hover

  Their strength, their route, and views discover;

  Then change his course, and straight impart

  Glad tidings to his chieftain’s heart …6

  These were all to prove strangely prophetic.

  5

  The experience of ballooning is in a sense timeless. Man-carrying balloons are both extremely modern and extremely primitive devices. In their contemporary form, powered by stainless-steel propane-gas burners and using rip-stop nylon envelopes, they were virtually reinvented in the mid-1960s by an American, Ed Yost, experimenting in Nebraska. His ideas were quickly taken up by Don Cameron and others in Britain and France.7 It should not be forgotten that these reinvented balloons were contemporary with the first moon landings and the earliest communication satellites.

  But balloons are also ancient and symbolic devices. They have a long history, and a longer mythology, going back in various forms and dimensions thousands of years, to ancient civilisations in South America and China. There are vague accounts of man-carrying smoke balloons from the Yin dynasty of the twelfth century BC. The great scholar and Sinologist Joseph Needham suggested that Chinese of the fourth century BC used fire balloons for signalling in warfare, or perhaps for carrying love letters. There are rumours of shamanic balloon flights made by the priests of the pre-Inca civilisations. Peruvian funereal rituals involved sending corpses out over the Pacific by hot-air balloon, just as the Vikings would later send out their sacred dead by fireboat into the North Sea. The famous geometrical carvings on the Nazca plateau in southern Peru, some of them animal shapes stretching over four miles in outline, are only explicable if they were originally designed to be viewed from hundreds of feet in the air, so presumably by balloon.

  It has been suggested that the Nazca designs were made by visiting aliens, hovering in flying saucers.fn3 But the modern balloonist Julian Nott successfully invented a huge smoke balloon, constructed purely from local materials, to prove that human beings could overfly and supervise the carvings even in the fifth century AD.9

  The primitive and the sophisticated elements of ballooning are often combined. In this way the balloon may have both a practical and a symbolic function, for example when it is used as a means of escape. Among the most remarkable balloon escapes ever made was a flight across the East German border in September 1979. Its daring, and the idea of a symbolic flight from Communism to the free West, so caught people’s imaginations that it was made into an adventure film by Disney, Night Crossing (1982), starring John Hurt and Beau Bridges.

  In March 1978 two East German men, Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel, living with their wives and four children at Poessneck, near the East German frontier, began working on several ideas for escaping to West Germany. Strelzyk was an aircraft mechanic and electrician with his own workshop, while Wetzel was a builder and a gifted handyman. Both were brilliant at bricolage, endlessly resourceful and determined. Together they hit upon the idea of secretly constructing a home-made hot-air balloon in Strelzyk’s attic and workshop.
There are various accounts of how they came up with this idea, but one is that Wetzel’s sister-in-law gave them an illustrated magazine article about the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the most famous of all hot-air balloon gatherings, launched in New Mexico in 1972. After that they got all their technical information from the Poessneck public library.

  Their balloon had to be very large, capable of lifting eight people to a height of at least five thousand feet, to avoid detection by frontier searchlights, and of carrying them at night over a distance of at least ten miles. They spent months surreptitiously assembling suitable materials, building makeshift propane burners and testing various potential balloon fabrics – including cotton sheets, umbrella covers, waterproof-jacket linings and tenting fabric. The work was shared, but Strelzyk specialised in constructing the burners and the sheet-metal balloon platform, while Wetzel worked on the balloon canopy and rigging. He sewed all the curved balloon strips, or gores, together on a pre-war, pedal-operated sewing machine. Everything had to be bought in small quantities from different shops to avoid alerting the network of Stasi informers; they drove as far as Leipzig to cover their purchases, sometimes claiming that they represented camping or sailing clubs. Their balloon trials were carried out at night in remote areas of the Thuringian forest.

  In the end, with infinite patience and ingenuity, they built three versions of their escape balloon. The first, a sixty-foot-high cotton balloon with a capacity of seventy thousand cubic feet, failed to inflate properly, due to porous fabric and a weak burner using two domestic propane cylinders. It had to be abandoned and painstakingly destroyed in April 1978. After more than a year of experiments and setbacks, they came up with a second design with a better, four-cylinder burner and tighter fabric. But during this anxious time Günter Wetzel, increasingly haunted by the risks to his family, reluctantly withdrew from the scheme, and began to consider more conventional methods of crossing the border.

  The second balloon was designed to take only the three members of the Strelzyk family. Symbolically, they chose American Independence Day, 4 July 1979, for their launch. But the balloon still lacked lifting power. It flew too low, became drenched by rainclouds, and began to sink earthwards just as the border came in sight. The Strelzyks crash-landed in the bare no-man’s land two hundred yards short of the actual frontier fence. By good luck they were just outside the frontier ‘death zone’, where the barbed wire, anti-personnel mines and automatic guns would have proved fatal. Astonishingly, the crumpled shape of the balloon was not immediately spotted by the border guards, probably because of the heavy rain. Under cover of darkness the three Strelzyks scrambled out of the wreckage, collected all the personal belongings they could carry, and somehow managed to slip back undetected to Poessneck, covering nine miles on foot before dawn. But the balloon equipment that they were forced to abandon meant that the Stasi had clues to their identity, and would soon be hot on their trail. Discovery within a matter of weeks was inevitable.

  At this desperate moment, the two families joined forces again. Working around the clock, the Strelzyks and the Weltzers constructed a much bigger balloon using piecemeal sections of artificial taffetas and dress materials, hastily purchased from small shops all over East Germany. An electric engine was attached to the sewing machine, and the propane burner was redesigned. In a matter of six weeks they had a new balloon looking like a huge multicoloured quilt. When fully inflated it stood nearly ninety feet high, and had a hot-air capacity of over 140,000 cubic feet, double that of the previous balloon. Its burner was powered by four propane tanks feeding into a simple five-inch-diameter stovepipe, capable of producing a narrow, violent flame which at maximum pressure shot fifty feet into the air – within thirty feet of the inner crown of the balloon. This could in theory lift well over 1,200 pounds (544 kilograms), the equivalent of seven adults and a child plus all the balloon equipment. But everything depended on the durability of the home-made envelope, the strength and direction of the wind, and the general flying conditions (including air temperature and humidity) on the actual night of the flight.

  Unable to obtain materials for a conventional wicker basket, they constructed instead an open metal platform four and a half feet square. The four propane cylinders stood in the centre of this platform, and the eight passengers carefully distributed their weight around them, having to crouch within inches of the platform’s outer edge. The youngest Wetzel was held in his mother’s arms. The ten guy ropes connected to the balloon were tethered to iron stanchions welded along the edges of the platform, which provided some handholds. There was also an outer guardrail made of loops of washing line, but this only came up to the adults’ waists. The stovepipe burner was ignited by a household match, and at full power burnt with a tremendous roar about six feet above the passengers’ heads, shooting flame high into the centre of the balloon. When this ‘flame-thrower’ was extinguished, they would float in absolute darkness and silence, standing virtually unprotected in the air, with no sound but the creak of the ropes against the balloon fabric, somewhere invisible above their heads. It was a magnificent, dreamlike, insane contraption. But it flew.

  At 2 a.m. on the night of 16 September 1979, with a brisk eighteen-mile-per-hour breeze blowing towards West Germany, they took off from their secret base in the Thuringian forest, about six miles from the frontier. They cleared the fir trees, and with a tremendous blast from the propane burner, the balloon rose rapidly to 6,500 feet. But as it turned on its axis in the dark, they soon lost all sense of direction. Clinging together on the tiny metal platform, they peered down in silence, looking for car headlamps which would indicate roads, or the chain of lights which would mark the border.

  After about twenty minutes, to their alarm, they suddenly saw searchlights springing up almost directly beneath them. They had the choice to drift downwards, steadily sinking but hoping to avoid detection in the dark, or to fire up their burner and try to climb clear. They chose to fire the burner, and with a huge sustained burst of flame, which they felt must surely be visible for miles around, rose to nearly nine thousand feet. Under either the increased heat or the air pressure, the crown of the balloon split. They began to sink again, but the balloon remained inflated, and by continuing to fire the burner until their propane ran out, they managed a crash-landing in an open field a hundred yards from a high-voltage pylon. Günter Wetzel broke his leg, but otherwise they were all unhurt, although they had no idea on which side of the border they had arrived. Peter Strelzyk walked over and shone a torch on the ‘Danger of Death’ sign fixed to the base of the pylon. It belonged to a West German electricity company. They had flown to freedom – and to fame – in exactly twenty-eight minutes. ‘We could have made it as far as Bayreuth,’ remarked Wetzel.10 fn4

  6

  The theme of escape, either literally from some form of imprisonment, or symbolically from the troubles of the earth itself, constantly recurs in the history of ballooning. When Dr Alexander Charles made the first ever flight by a true hydrogen balloon, two hundred years before the escape of the Strelzyks and the Wetzels, on 1 December 1783, it was the feeling of absolute and almost metaphysical freedom that overcame him.

  Flying with an engineering assistant, Monsieur Robert, Dr Charles launched from the Jardin des Tuileries in central Paris, and travelled over twenty miles north-west to the country town of Nesles. His balloon was a mere thirty feet high, but was equipped with a proper wicker basket, a venting valve, and sacks of ballast to adjust its height and control its descent. His departure was witnessed by nearly half a million people, among them the American ambassador, Benjamin Franklin. After they had landed safely at Nesles, Monsieur Robert disembarked, but Dr Charles remained in the basket. He then achieved the first ever solo ascent, rapidly rising in the lightened balloon to a magnificent ten thousand feet. From this vantage point he saw the sun set for a second time on the same day. It was a revelation.

  Dr Charles’s brilliant account of this ascent was widely published in
both Britain and France, and catches a euphoric tone which never quite disappears from subsequent balloon accounts. He had laid in supplies for an aerial journey of many hours – fur coats, cold chicken and champagne. But what he actually tasted was that existential substance:

  Nothing will ever quite equal that moment of total hilarity that filled my whole body at the moment of take-off. I felt we were flying away from the Earth and all its troubles and persecutions for ever. It was not mere delight. It was a sort of physical rapture … I exclaimed to my companion Monsieur Robert – ‘I’m finished with the Earth. From now on our place is in the sky! … Such utter calm. Such immensity! Such an astonishing view … Seeing all these wonders, what fool could wish to hold back the progress of science!’12

  Benjamin Franklin watched the launch through a telescope from the window of his carriage. Afterwards he remarked, ‘Someone asked me – what’s the use of a balloon? I replied – what’s the use of a new-born baby.’

  The same sense of escaping into an utterly new world is displayed by Thomas Baldwin’s Airopaedia, or Narrative of a Balloon Excursion from Chester in 1785. This is his account of a single flight made on 8 September 1785, flying northwards above the river Mersey, from Chester to Warrington in Lancashire. It must be one of the most remarkable books about the experience of ballooning ever written. It also included flight maps, and the first aerial drawings ever made from a balloon basket.

 
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