"Well, he started flying when he was 9 years old. He was so small he had to have two telephone books under his seat, and even then he couldn't see out of the cockpit. That's why he got so good at instrument flying."
The speaker was Herb (Speedy) Newman, an Albuquerque gemologist and former souvenir salesman. The guy he was talking about was his son Larry, 30, who crossed the Atlantic in a balloon last month - the first ever - in the company of a couple of fellow executives from Albuquerque, Ben Abruzzo, 48, and Maxie Anderson, 44.
The three balloonists sat at the head table for yesterday's National Press Club lunch, flanked by wives, an astronaut, the French ambassador, an earlyday flier and, inevitably, the Smithsonian and the National Geographic.
"He's an accomplished pilot by now," Herb muttered to his neighbor in the audience. "He's checked out for everything up to Lear jets. He and the other two own a Lear jet together. And he's one of the top 10 hang-gliders in the world. He's glided off Sandia Peak 700 times, and that's 5.000 feet high. But this was his first balloon trip."
His first balloon trip. How American can you get? We love heroes who saunter casually into history - Lindbergh and his two tunafish sandwiches, Doug Corrigan who flew his puddle-jumper to Ireland and thought he was in California - without inflicting on us any grand thoughts about the Nature of Humankind or the meaning of the universe, but just for the hell of it.
Up front, the pioneers were telling stories about their 3,120-mile, 137-hour flight which ended in a Normandy barley field Aug. 17, just 55 miles short of Charles Lindbergh's landing at Le Bourget in the Spirit of St. Louis 51 years ago.
Anderson was recalling a radio conversation they had with a ham in Georgia who didn't seem in the least excited by being called at night from a transatlantic balloon 500 miles out at sea.
"We got him to patch into a phone and call Boston for us," he said, "and we waited and waited, and about 10 minutes later we asked him how he was doing. He said he hadn't got the operator yet."
And Abruzzo was explaining how the Smithsonian Institution got first whacks on the balloon (after the people of France tore, yanked and bit off pieces of it for souvernirs): "When we were still crossing the English Channel they called us on the radio and asked for it."
The Smithsonian wasn't their only visitor. Herb Newman was there, circling them in a plane. A pilot for 33 years himself, he had flown to Canada to wave at them en route, later had taken a Laker flight to London and had talked his way aboard a small plane charteted by a couple of French photographers.
"I was flying the plane myself when Pierre Vauthey took that picture for the cover of Newsweek," he said. "Then we got over France and I figured out where they were gonna land, so I spotted a little meadow 1.200 feet long and I said let's land there but the pilot didn't think he could make it, so I brought her down for him. Then we had to get to Miserey, and there was this ambulance standing around, so I showed the guy my honorary sheriff's badge, and he took us over in the ambulance."
On the podium, Anderson was saying they had been approached about doing a book but had made no decisions. If they did, he said, it would be to tell the youth of America that "success often follows failure. If we hadn't failed (a year ago they had to be fished out of 25-foot seas off Iceland when their first craft, Double Eagle 1, sank after 2,950 miles), I doubt we'd have made it. It's not the hopes and dreams but dedication and determination that get you there."
The adventures are not exactly your average opoortunistic stuntmen. Anderson heads a uranium and copper-minign firm, Abruzzo is a resort developer, Newman runs a prosperous hang-glider company.
The flight cost $125,000, they said, plus $25,000 to get home again. They paid for tthree-quarters of it, with some chairborne partners covering the rest.
Someone wanted to know if the Co. querels, the farmers whose three-acre barley field was trampled in the landing, were ever reimbursed.
"We told them we'd pay for the crop," Abruzzo said. "They wanted a few hundred. We paid them an even thousand. But their lives will never be the same again: Now there's going to be a monument right in the middle of the field."
Ballooning, he added, is not just a matter of getting up there and snoozing. He and Anderson have been floating around Albuquerque ("The Ballooning Capital of the World!") for seven years and can fly almost anything with wings.
"On our first trip we carried the flags of France, England, Germany, Belgium, Italy . . . and Canada and Mexico."
Running a balloon means knowing when to let out how much helium, when to dribble how many pounds of sand, keeping low enough to breathe when the sun expands the helium and high enough not to drown whn night or a chill fog sends it plummeting.
Near Ireland, hitting a "cold sink," they fell from 24,000 to 4,000 feet in one gut-wrenching dive. They dumped out food, cameras, $35,000 worth of electronic gear, even their sleeping bags to stay up.
Later, hoping to make Le Bourget or even the Alps, they tried to saw off the stern of the gondola itself. They even talked about jettisoning Larry, who volunteered to hand-glide down to the Shetland Islands. Instead, they jettisoned the glider.
Are they really going to balloon around the world in 30 days, as they incautiously had suggested in the first euphoric press conference?
"It's entirely possible," Anderson said. "The techniques, the equipment and the balloons are available, though they're used for unmanned flight. We're going to think about it a great deal. If not that, we hope to do some other thing . . ."
Now Larry Newman was telling the curious how they went to the bathroom in the Double Eagle II (on a standard camp commode; the neatly bagged product counted as ballast), and he was grinning the fresh, open grin that Americans love to see on their heroes.
In the audience Herb Newman was grinning too, leaning forward in his concentration, his eyes taking in every detail, his lips moving ever so slightly as his son spoke.