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It was a case of taking off in clover and landing in barley, but that didn't diminish the thrill of it one iota. In August 1978 three businessmen from New Mexico flew a helium balloon from a clover field near Presque Isle, Maine to a barley field near Paris, France. The trip lasted a few hours short of six days, and it was the first transatlantic balloon crossing. To a world jaded by the routine mechanical feats of astronauts, it was a heroic event—a stirring reminder of the perils man faces in challenging nature, and the courage he displays in conquering it.

That the event has spawned a book is no surprise; the publishing industry lies in wait for every passing sensation. What is surprising is that the flight of Double Eagle II has produced a very good book, one that does full justice to a dramatic story of unusual richness and complexity. Titled Double Eagle (Little, Brown, $12.95), it is written by Charles McCarry with the full cooperation of the three balloonists—Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman.

That they are brave fellows needs no certification here. But a reading of Double Eagle reveals precisely how brave they are. In marvelously informative detail, McCarry explains the intricacies of a sport—for ballooning is indeed a sport—that turns out to be vastly more dangerous and chancy than the nonparticipant might suppose.

It isn't just a matter of inflating a big balloon and sailing off into the wild blue yonder. Even the casual weekend balloonist must contend with intricate forces of weather, air currents and variations in topography, not to mention the complexities of navigation and ballasting. For the balloonist attempting to fly across the treacherous, unpredictable Atlantic, these complexities must be multiplied a hundredfold or more. Yet the men from Albuquerque, assisted by a singularly expert ground crew, conquered them all.

They also conquered the psychological problems created when three men of disparate temperaments are placed in very close, hazardous quarters for a very long, uncertain time. The candor with which the men spoke to McCarry about their mixed feelings for one another is admirable; he reports their tribulations and exaltations with sympathy and a candor equal to their own.

Even though we all know what happened. McCarry makes us want to know why and how it happened—and he gives the answers, warts and all.