WE TRIED to get a police escort across Indiana; we said we'd been chasing a balloon across the country for five days and now the balloon was in trouble. The police wouldn't buy it.

So, without escort or precise idea where we were going, we drove out of Indianapolis shortly after midnight. The night was charged with lightning, wind and hard rain; tornadoes had touched down to the north. We headed toward Ohio, looking for four balloonists we'd been told had parachuted into the violent thunderstorms.

We'd been told wrong. The crew of the DaVinci TransAmerica, attempting the first nonstop balloon crossing of the United States, hadn't jumped. They'd stayed inside the gondola and landed in a soybean field. Only the pilot, Vera Simons of McLean, Va., was injured. She broke a leg.

But I didn't know that. The twin-engine airplane in which I and a rotating cast of balloon chasers had been tailing the DaVinci had been forced down by the storm in Indianapolis. I'd emerged from the tine plane slightly sick and more than slightly scared.

I called the Bedford, Mass., meteorologists who'd been tracking the DaVinci since it lifted off from Tillamook, Ore. A woman answering the phone said the crew had bailed out and the gondola had been found empty in northwest Ohio.

My fellow balloon chasers and I drove off. I stared out at the rain-soaked Indiana cornfields and replayed in my mind the reasons why the balloonists were willing to risk their lives in a fragile, 10-story-high craft that only goes where the wind blows it.

Simons, the blond, German-born balloonist and artist, wanted to lure as many Americans as she could into looking up from their humdrum lives and taking joy in an airborne piece of art.

Dr Fred Hyde, an eye surgeon from Kansas City who makes nearly $600,000 a year, wanted to escape the boredom of fixing eyes and his guilt about making so much money.

Rudolf J. Englemann, an environmental scientist from Boulder, Colo., wanted desperately to do what other balloonists said was impossible. He'd swelled with pride before the flight when children in Oregon asked for his autograph and called him the "balloon man."

Randy Birch, a cameraman who works for NBC Television in Chicago, flew aboard the DaVinci because NBC asked him to. NBC reportedly paid $7,500 for the right to put Birch in the balloon.

The balloon crew (except for Birch) told me their reasons for flying at a preflight feast in Tillamook. They'd been drinking wine and eating Pacific salmon for four hours in the banquet room of the little town's best restaurant. Simons' husband, Cliff LaPlant, was there holding hands with her. The wives of Englemann and Hyde were there. Everyone laughed and drank and toasted to the DaVinci's future success.

Cliff LaPlant, Virginia Englemann and Elaine Hyde didn't appear worried, although they knew the history of long-distance ballooning was marked by failure and death.

Seventeen ballons failed and five pilots died before the first successful crossing of the Atlantic last August. Ben Abruzzo, one of the three Americans who made that first successful crossing last year and who failed this year in a transcontinental attempt, had said the DaVinci's chances of success were "very slight."

But the spouses of the balloonists were euphoric on that night 37 hours before the liftoff. Their faces foreshadowed none of the fear that flashed in their eyes a week later as they rushed into a hospital in Lima, Ohio.

"In the balloon, there is the most joy I've experienced in my life," Simons said in Tillamook.

The first days of the flight were joyous for the crew. The DaVinci, filled with 216,000 cubic feet of helium and lifting a gondola weighing 8,488 pounds, popped through a drizzling blanked of low clouds over the Oregon coast on Wednesday morning, Sept. 26. It rose to 5,000 feet and took off toward the east in a 50-mile-an-hour wind.

Simons tape-recorded the balloon's liftoff. She played the tape -- the sounds of hundreds of Oregonians cheering, clapping their hands and honking car horns -- over and over for her crew as they drifted in the pristine blue sky over the Cascade Mountains and eastward above the Columbia River gorge.

Our chase plane caught up with and circled the balloon two or three times a day as the DaVinci ascended the Teton Mountains in eastern Idaho and continued moving east toward the Colorado Rockies. At sunrise and sunset, the translucent plastic balloon appeared to glow from within, radiating the sun's own warmth and the colors of red and yellow and orange.

In radio interviews the first four days of the flight, Simons, Englemann and Hyde told me their balloon ride was "beautiful," "gorgeous" and the "most exciting thing in my life." The DaVinci passed within two miles of Englemann's house in Boulder, where the scientist's sons stood on the roof and waved. It passed over downtown Denver, setting a record for the longest balloon flight in the United States. In Kansas, the balloonists yelled hellos to gawking farmers. There was no talk of thunderstorms or fear.

Simons had told me she hasn't been afraid of heights or flying since her father, a German photographer and adventurer, forced her to go mountain climbing at age 9. She was not worried, she said, by the thunderstorms that plague the Midwest during the late summer, storms which can rip a balloon apart.

One of four women in the United States licensed to fly a gas balloon, Simons is an artist whose sculpture and painting have been displayed at the Smithsonian Institution, the Boston Museum of Fine Art and museums in Mexico, South America and Europe. According to one art critic, Simons' art always hints at the silent freedom of ballooning.

Simons conceived of the DaVinci flight in 1971, she said, as the most efficient way of getting Americans to appreciate what she considers to be a stunning piece of contemporary art -- a tear-shaped balloon larger than a Goodyear blimp.

She went looking in 1974 for a scientist who would ride on the balloon, infuse the flight with scientific import and help her find sponsors for the expensive project.

She found Rudolf Englemann, 49, a bearded, ebullient meteorologist who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Englemann joined Simons in 1974 for a balloon ride over Las Cruces, N.M. He flew then, he said, because he wanted to gather information on pollution, radiation and ozone levels in the atmosphere.

For the transcontinental flight, however, the scientist could not use science as an excuse for risking his life. NOAA, which had planned to place scientific instruments aboard the balloon and pay Englemann's salary while he flew, withdrew its support before the DaVinci took off.

A NOAA spokesman said the agency backed out of the balloon flight because one of its employes, identified by sources as Englemann, may have been involved in an illegal conflict of interest with other balloon sponsors. The 7-Up company and other corporate sponsors put up most of the $250,000 that got the balloon in the air. Englemann flew on his vacation.

At the salmon feast in Tillamook, he told me he was flying because he believed in "Santa Claus and the tooth fairy." The scientist said he has always tried to look at life with a child's eyes. Through those eyes, he said, nothing was more exciting than riding a balloon across the country.

On the last night of the balloon's flight, when the DaVinci was trapped by the thunderstorm that dumped snow and rain in the gondola and sent the craft plummeting downward from 14,000 feet, Englemann was the one crew member who argued that the baloon should be kept in the air. Nearly as soon as he was on the ground on Oct. 2, the scientist said he wanted to try again to cross the country in a balloon.

Fred Hyde, the eye surgeon from Kansas City who was the balloon's radio expert, was more circumspect. After the balloon landed, he said he'd "sure have to think for a while" about another cross-country balloon ride. But Hyde said he got what he wanted from the flight -- he'd risked his life and hadn't died.

"Some people run to exonerate themselves from their sins," Hyde told me. "Thousands of years ago, men killed lions. I like to lay my soul on the line in a balloon."

Hyde, 49, said his ballooning is "a midlife crisis thing." He makes "tons" of money, he said, last year around $600,000. He owns a hot-air balloon, a gas galloon and three single-engine airplanes.

"Sure, I fix eyes," said Hyde, who specializes in corneal transplants and has patented several instruments he developed for microscopic eye surgury. "But I need more. I need to put my life in jeopardy and then come back."

Now the entire balloon crew was in jeopardy. The updrafts in the thunderstorm that engulded the balloon could have shot it up to 30,000 feet or higher, where the crew would have died for lack of oxygen. Had the crew bailed out in parachutes, as I'd been told they had, updrafts could have held them in the air for hours amid snow, rain and lightning. A night landing on electrical power lines could have been fatal.

But the DaVinci was lucky. It landed in an open field. Darkness made it impossible for the crew to anticipate when the gondola would crash into the ground, and Simons' left leg shattered below the knee on the first impact. A second and final bounce on the soybean field near Spencerville, Ohio, left Simons screaming in agony.

The artist's balloon -- a graceful, silver orb in flight -- became a limp baggie, collecting rain and bugs in the soybeans. The artist was taken by ambulance to a hospital.

There, at St. Rita's Medical Center in Lima, Ohio, Simons waited in the emergency room for a bone surgeon and her husband. She was in severe pain and depressed over the flight's failure. She said she didn't understand what had gone wrong.

Englemann, baggy-eyed but enthusiastic, took off from the hospital to catch a plane for Chicago and make an appearance on NBC's "Today" show. While Simons was in surgery, Englemann was saying on TV that he wanted to fly again.

The spouses of the crew rushed into St. Rita's soon after I did. They'd been in a chase plane that had been forced down in Cincinnati and had managed to find a police escort across Ohio. It was not yet dawn. They looked tired and terrified.

Cliff LaPlant, who'd heard that his wife was hurt, rushed off to be with her.

"Where's my Rudy? Virginia Englemann asked me. I told her Englemann was going on television. She cried.

Elaine Hyde found her husband sleeping in a waiting room. The surgeon's eyes were puffy and red. He had a bump on his forehead and water was dripping from his pant legs.

He said he was happy. He'd done it, he said.

"It's the age-old rite of going out and killing the lion," he told his wife.