Three American daredevils who crossed the Atlantic in a giant silver balloon landed in a wheat field outside Paris yesterday and were mobbed by Frenchmen in a scene reminiscent of the welcome for Charles Lindgergh a half-century ago.
The 11-story-high Double Eagle II. flying both the Stars and Stripes and the French Tricolor, touched down just before dusk near the hamlet of Miserey. 50 miles west of Paris, ending a six-day, 3,200-mile odyssey which had begun in Presque Isle, Maine.
As light planes buzzed overhead dipping their wings in salute, Frenchmen who had been trailing the balloon along country roads drove wildly across fields to embrace the first balloonists to successfully cross the Atlantic.
"I cannot believe this welcome," excalimed a beared Ben Abruzzo, 48, as he jumped from the red and yellow gondola along with co-adventurers Maxie Anderson, 44, and 31-year-old Larry Newman.
After quickly securing their balloon in a stiff evening breeze, the three men uncorked a bottle of champagne they had brought with them and doused each other as the rapidly growing crowd cheered wildly.
Half an hour after touchdown, the celebration was still growing. Gendarmes all but abandoned their efforts to hold back the thousands who had converged on the site, and the balloon's gondola was ripped apart for souvenirs.
"Lindbergh was a much bigger thing, of course, but this is really something, too," exulted Emile Lasne, 73, who remembered the landing of Charles Lindbergh at Le Bourget Airport in 1927 following the first nonstop Atlantic crossing by air.
The three balloonists, all rom Albuquerque. N.M., had hoped to follow in "Lucky Lindy's" footsteps and end their flight at Le Bourget, but a wind shift yesterday forced them to abandon that goal.
It hardly seemed to matter.
"This is fantastic," shouted a woman holding her baby high for a glimpse of the balloonists.
"This is fabulous, fabulous," echoed Gregoire Mussayan, a motorist who joined the celebration. "This is a victory for the American perople."
At the height of the celebration, Newman's father, Herb, who had been trailing the balloon, arrived to greet his son.
"I did it, I did it," shouted Newman burying his head in his father's shoulder and weeping.
Before a helicopter arrived to take the three adventurers to Paris, the village doctor gave them a rapid checkup. He found them tired, but otherwise in good health.
The three balloonists also donned fresh T-shirts before boarding the helicopter that proudly proclaimed, "First Transatlantic Crossing by Balloon."
In Paris, another hero's welcome - and a reunion with their wives - awaited the trio. Earlier in the day, as the Double Eagle II drifted across southern England, the three wives had flown close enough to the balloon in a private plane to blow kisses at their husbands.
In Paris, Youth and Sports Minister Jean-Pierre Soisson termed the achievement "a new bridge between American and France," and announced that he had awarded the balloonists his ministry's gold medal.
The French government also planned a champagne welcome to Paris for the Americans, although the balloonists - who dined during their six-day flight on hot dogs and canned sardines - radioed ahead they were they looking forward to a meal of french fries and hamburgers.
Air France also suggested that the three balloonists avail themselves of somewhat faster transportation on their return across the Atlantic to the United States, offering them free passage aboard the supersonic Concorde.
In downtown Paris, crowds of Frenchmen gathered on the Rue du Faubourg St. Honore outside the U.S. Embassy residence where the balloonist and their wives were put up for the night.
The youngest of the three, Newman, and his wife Sandra won the right to spend the night in the Lindbergh bed, where Lucky Lindy slept following his epic flight.
Anderson, a veteran pilot and industrial engineer who along with Abruzzo had attempted the same voyage a year ago aboard the Double Eagle I, said the balloonists ran into troubble only four times on their flight.
The mot serious problem, he said, was "when we iced up badly about halfway across the Atlantic. It cost us a lot of ballast and height."
But recalling his previous transatlantic effort, he added: "Last year we went down off Iceland. We're kind of glad to be here in France this time."
Abruzzo, who is in real estate and other businesses, is also a veteran balloonist and pilot. Newman, a newcomer to ballooning, manufactures hang gliders and had hoped to arrive on the European continent on a hang glider that had been attached to the gondola of the Double Eagle II. Ballast problems, however, forced the balloonists to jettison the glider over the Atlantic.
The three men actually achieved the century-old dream of crossing the Atlantic by balloon Wednesday night, when the Double Eagle II crossed the coast of Ireland 121 hours and 18 minutes after liftoff.
Propelled by brisk winds, they pressed on across Wales and southwest England, over the English channel, and crossed the French coastline near Le Havre.
"We intended to go to Le Bourget airport because Lindbergh landed there," Abruzzo said. But as the balloon soared across the hedgerows of Normandy toward paris, the wind began to shift.
"The direction of the balloon was changed," Abruzzo said, so the three men decided to land.
When they finally set the Double Eagle II gently down in the wheat field, they had been in the air 137 hours and 18 minutts and had traveled an estimated 3,233 miles - both new records.
Despite their disappointment at not making it to Le Bourget, the balloonists were clearly delighted to have succeeded in reaching France.
"I guess Ireland would have done it," Anderson said.
"But the reason we wanted to come to France was Charles Lindbergh," he added. "He's an inspiration to many generations of Frenchmen and Americans."