Skip to main content
Original Issue

Across the Land on Hot Air

Balloonist Tracy Barnes called it the closest thing to bird's flight, but his bird kept falling to earth

Early that afternoon the people began to gather on the dusty baseball diamond by the Susquehanna River. Farm families, boisterous groups of teen-age boys, older men with leathery hands and sunburned foreheads, carloads of young children. The adults sat in the shade of riverbank trees and talked about the weather, the price of groceries and the harvest. The boys tore endlessly around the diamond on their bicycles, raising clouds of dust. Everyone was waiting for the moment when Tracy Barnes would again soar aloft in his wonderful hot-air balloon.

The big balloon was spread out across center field, sad and lumpy like a stricken circus tent. It was attached to a three-by-four-foot wicker basket that looked far too rickety for its mission. Strapped around the outside of the basket were eight tanks of propane fuel for the blowtorch that would heat the air in the balloon, causing it to expand and thus lift the balloon off the ground.

At last the balloonist emerged from his camper truck in a brown flight suit. He was lean and intense, and had about him an air of competence.

He got to work promptly. He put two large fans near the opening of the collapsed balloon. Two men held up the fabric as the fans began to blow air into the balloon, making it wriggle as it stretched, slowly, to its full 60-foot length. With the basket still lying on its side, Barnes climbed in and turned a valve. There was a sudden whoosh, and a huge burst of flame shot inside the undulating balloon. Dogs barked, bike riders dismounted and little children reached for their mothers' hands.

As the balloon, now shaped like a light bulb, quivered and strained, three men put their shoulders to the wicker basket and turned it upright. The balloonist fired another bolt of flame to warm the air still more. The crowd began to buzz then was suddenly silent. The balloon, bouncing softly on the turf, seemed to want to be off. Three pairs of hands held the basket down, while Barnes's quick eyes darted around and glanced upward, making a last-minute inspection. No one spoke. In the distance, somewhere off in another century, a motorboat churned on the Susquehanna. But, wait! Something was wrong. Barnes was getting out of the basket again. Would the balloon take off without him? No. He was back in the basket in seconds, a spool of nylon thread in his hand. The crowd, reassured, began to hum again. Children strained at their mothers' arms, wanting to get closer but afraid to let go. A middle-aged man, his eyes glowing, turned to his wife and said, "Damn, he's really gonna do it."

"Hey, mister, goodby," shouted a small boy. "Have a pleasant trip."

"It's just a lot of hot air," yelled someone else, looking around coyly to see if his friends got the joke.

At last, Barnes turned to the men holding the basket and nodded. They let go and stepped back. For an instant the balloon sat uncertainly on the ground, then gently, easily, it floated upward, joined the breeze and lifted into the southeast sky. The balloonist peered over his wicker perch, gave an abrupt wave and shouted goodby. The little town of Wrightsville, Pa., smiling below, broke into applause.

In minutes Tracy Barnes was once again floating free—a speck in the sky; a gentle intrusion; a grand, bubbly vision; an object of wonder and awe—off on another leg of his strange, sad and uproarious adventure; coast to coast by hot-air balloon.

At one time or another during the airborne odyssey Tracy had crashed into a California mountain, been forced to bail out, caught fire on power lines, splashed awkwardly down in the Allegheny River, been lost for three days in the Rocky Mountains, spent weeks waiting for wrong-way winds to right themselves, interfered with the natural growth patterns of trees from the Grand Canyon to Nebraska and had irritated a phalanx of startled lawmen. Even the legendary Phileas Fogg might have quit under such setbacks, but Barnes had made up his mind that he was going to do it, and he did. Some 22 weeks after he first took off from Coronado, Calif., Tracy reported to the nation—whose indifference had been broken only by a swath of gaping mouths along his route—that he had finally gained the East Coast.

Young Barnes, 27, had been manufacturing sport balloons for a lonely minority of anachronistic adventurers for about five years when he got to thinking about how nice it would be to float clear across the country. Somehow he managed to persuade Lennox Industries, a maker of furnaces and air conditioners, to bankroll the trip. It would take, he estimated, four-to-eight weeks. Why do it? For the challenge, of course, he would answer. For the promotion of his business. Because it hadn't been done before. But why, really? The question would always give him pause. "Flying a balloon," he would say slowly, "gives you a sensation you can't get any other way. You go so slow, you can come down over the treetops and talk to people. Did you ever dream that you could fly like Peter Pan, going in and out of the trees? It's like that. It's as close to being able to fly like a bird as you can get. You have an entirely different perspective. When I drift over a wooded area, with houses and streets mixed in, it's like rowing across a lake and looking down into the water. The sun's shining on the tree-tops and they look like the surface of a lake. You almost have to strain to see between the trees to the houses and people. On top everything's very bright, but underneath it's dark, and houses look like pebbles on the bottom of a lake."

Barnes's voyage began on April 9, 1966, when he turned up at the Del Coronado Hotel, a short ferry ride from San Diego, with a balloon named Firefly 90. Two men were assigned to pursue him in a jeep and camper truck. A well-dressed crowd, including a sulky beauty queen suffering from lack of attention, hustled out to the hotel's private beach to wave him off. A 10-year-old girl thrust a letter at him, addressed to "Elementary School, Atlantic Coast," with VIA BALLOON in big block letters on the envelope. Inside was a request for a pen pal. All was joy and optimism for miles around.

But not for long. Two days later came calamity No. 1. "I thought I'd give one of my crew a ride," says Tracy. "We had to get up to about 3,000 feet and over a small mountain just east of San Diego. But before we got to 2,000 feet a zipper at the top of the balloon worked loose. It was slowly letting more and more air out of the balloon. I figured we had to get back down, but I couldn't control the descent, because air was escaping faster than I could shoot it in. The balloon started to lose its shape, and we were starting down. I told Howard to put on his chute. He had never jumped before. We were coming down at about 500 feet a minute. Finally, at 1,500 feet, he jumped. But he closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around the chute, so the chute didn't open. The thought went through my mind, boink, he's had it. But finally about 100 feet above the ground the chute opened." A moment later Barnes himself jumped out, and both of them landed safely, within 50 yards of their balloon. The balloon itself was grounded two and a half weeks for repairs.

Tracy Barnes uses the "boink" to describe untoward happenings that befall him in his balloon. He would need it again and again.

Attempting to cross the Laguna Mountains in darkness, he remembers, "I went down to 4,000 feet and saw what appeared to be a desert with shrubs—brownish-gray splotchy areas. I couldn't tell how high above it I was. It turned out that the splotchy areas were boulders the size of houses.

"I came down lower and saw that I was moving faster than I thought I was. There was a wind rolling down from the peaks at about 30 mph. I got caught in it. Then I saw a huge mound of rocks coming up in front of me. I didn't have time to get over it. I had about 20 seconds to brace myself and shut off the valves. There was a terrific impact and a terrible scraping sound, and I felt that the wind was knocked out of me. But after the impact I realized I was still flying. The balloon went on up and over the peak and then got caught in swirling air on the other side. The gondola scraped up the side to the peak and smashed into the boulders again. It happened one more time before the gondola finally wedged between boulders and I rolled out of it. I lay there and watched while the balloon took off again and went through this cycle two more times. It came right back toward me and smacked into the rocks a few feet away from me. It was an uncanny feeling, like one of those movies where a big dinosaur is coming down at you. Then the gondola broke up in the air, and I saw the pieces dropping down."

Barnes lay for 17 hours with a severely wrenched back before help arrived. He was lifted out by helicopter and taken to a hospital in San Diego. It was a month before he was airborne again.

About two months later, on his way across Arizona, Barnes discovered he had crossed the Grand Canyon at night and hadn't seen it. He waited for the wind to change again, doubled back and plopped down in the canyon. He was up again in 30 minutes and down again in 30 more, tangled—boink—in the branches of a ponderosa pine on the north rim of the canyon. Then the park rangers showed up. "They mainly wanted to make sure that we didn't drop any candy wrappers, drive off the road or cut down any trees," says Barnes. "But they finally let us cut the top 10 feet off of one tree so we could untangle the balloon." The balloonist did a quick patch job on Firefly 90, which was beginning to look more like Bedbug 40, and pushed on. That night he came down in Green River, Utah. The night after that? Well, after that he got lost.

Crossing the Rockies, Tracy found a breeze so amiable that he just kept going, landing about 50 miles beyond his intended plopdown point and losing radio contact with his ground crew, far back along the mountain roads. Before the trip began Barnes and the crew had made a solemn covenant: if he became lost the crew would search for three days, then notify the local authorities. But the press learned of his disappearance and began harassing the sheriff in Craig, Colo., a stranger to the balloon world, with anxious inquiries.

The sheriff took it unkindly. "How do I know where they are?" he snorted. "Bunch of knotheads come flying in here with a balloon, not notifying anyone."

They found Barnes on the third day, idling in a mountain meadow near Walden, Colo., balloon intact. He had passed the time downing Nutrament, a liquid food substitute, and munching the sunflower seeds he had brought along for just such an emergency.

On June 26 he drifted into Nebraska. Coming in for a landing just north of Broadwater, he spotted a tiny grove of trees looming uncertainly up on the great prairie. Good place to camp, he said to himself, and aimed Firefly 90 for a point just short of the trees. He turned the burner off, cooling the air in the balloon, and eased down lower, lower, until—boink—he snagged a dead branch. "It was the only grove of trees within 100 miles," the ill-starred aeronaut moped, "and I hit it."

Across the Midwest his progress was steady. Spalding, Nebraska. Holstein, Iowa. Gilmore City, Iowa. Marshall-town, Iowa. The towns fairly flew by beneath him. At Rock Island, Ill., he was reported as an unidentified flying object. Then came Milford, Ind.

Firefly 90 bounced down on the Bud Felkner farm outside of Milford at about 8 o'clock one morning. "Within 30 minutes a guy showed up wanting to sell tickets to see the balloon," Barnes says. "The proceeds were to go to the local American Legion Ladies' Auxiliary Chorus, which had just won the state competition. They needed $500 to go to Washington for the national finals. I said, 'Why not?' So they charged 25[¢] a person. By 9 o'clock people started to show up, and there was a girl selling tickets." By 4 that afternoon, when Barnes drifted up and out of their lives as eerily as he had enriched them, the ladies of Milford were $80 closer to their goal.

He made it into Ohio on the next jump and into Pennsylvania on the one after that. Then, once again—boink.

"I couldn't find a place to come down," he recalls. "It was too hilly and wooded. I was running out of fuel, when finally I saw the Allegheny River coming up. It looked like the only safe place to land in miles." It wasn't.

He hit the river all right, to the astonishment of an assortment of boaters, fishermen and fish, but he also hit the Tarentum-New Kensington Bridge. "There was a guard rail on top of a foundation piling. The balloon snagged on a corner of the railing and tore. The gondola just sort of tipped over in the water and I swam out. Two guys in an outboard pulled me out."

But he was on the homestretch now. By straining his nostrils he could almost smell the ocean. From Tarentum he sailed east to Allemans, claiming a hot-air-balloon altitude record of 28,585 feet along the way ("at that height," he informed the press, "you can't whistle").

Firefly 90, however, had one more boink in its kit, and it turned out to be its last. Coming down in a field west of Wrightsville, Pa., Barnes caught a down-draft and struck some power lines. The balloon bounced against the wires and caught fire. Ever calm, Barnes waited for the gondola to settle, then leaped out and began a frantic search for water. But, alas, the lines he had ripped were those which powered the water supply, and he could only stand in abject gloom while his faithful old red-and-white companion blazed away. "I felt so helpless. I was 100 miles from my destination, and I just had to watch it burn. At that point I was really afraid the whole thing was over with."

But a day later his resolution shored up again, he sent to South Carolina for a replacement—Big White by name—and in the colorless substitute he glided off from the Wrightsville ball park five days later. The Wrightsville flight took him to Elkton, Md., and on the next morning, Sept. 11, he floated over Delaware Bay and came down on the western edge of the Cape May Peninsula in New Jersey.

Victory at last! Or was it? Not quite. Barnes had come down five miles short of the Atlantic, because he had promised a San Diego television station that he would call before his final flight. He planned to cover the last five miles, with suitable fanfare, that afternoon. But by that afternoon the winds had switched to the west, and the weather bureau said they might stay that way a week. Deflation. Desolation. Misery.

Barnes clumped back to his motel room and found a small group of reporters awaiting him. He gave them the news, sank into a chair and glared angrily at the sky. He was out of time (he was due at an air show in San Diego) and low on money (his sponsor had pulled out a month earlier). He was also very tired.

"I'm on the Cape May Peninsula," he. said at last. "I'm on the East Coast. It's not exactly ending as I visualized it. I expected to get wet. But I've made a coast-to-coast flight. I've done what I set out to do."