It took 119 years, ever since Thaddeus S.C. Lowe never got off the ground in a 200-foot monster named The Great Western, but humanity has finally conquered the Atlantic Ocean in the clumsiest, most unpredictable form of transportation ever invented (if you ignore the rush-hour bus): the balloon.

Max Anderson, Larry Newman and Ben Abruzzo have thereby reassured us once more than whim will always triumph over physics, given a fair trial.

"Balloons usually leak or bust," wrote Malcolm Forbes in a November 1968 issue of his Forbes magazines. That was the entire article. But then, Forbes can count himself an expert, having failed in a trans-atlantic attempt of his own when the craft did neither, but took off without him instead.

Chairman Malcolm has also said: "Anyone would be facinated by balloons."

Seven people have died trying to get one across the Atlantic including Thomas L. Gatch of Alexandria, who disappeared in 1974, last sighted 800 miles southwest of the Azores.

Even a successful landing in France can be hazardous, as J.A.C. Charles learned in 1783 when his hydrogen balloons was torn to pieces by peasants who taught the moon was attacking the earth. Louis XVI issued a decree against this sort of thing but balloonist to this day always carry a bottle of champagne with them to toast their triumphs and mollity the rabble. ("I'm so sick of champagne," says Washington professional balloonist Pat Michaels.)

According to Arabian legend, the djinns were able to fly by swallowing air. In the 17th century, French author Cyrano de Bergerac dreamt of flying in dew-filled flasks (the theory being that dew was lighter than air.)

In 1670, Italian Jesuit Francesco de Lana proposed a vacuum-balloon ship suspended from 20-foot copper globes, but he doubted God would allow it to fly "since it would cause much disturbance." Brazilian Jesuit Father Laurenco de Gusmao nearly set the king of Portugal on fire with a hot air device on Aug. 8, 1709.

Then, in 1783, the Mongolfier brothers and J.A.C. Charles demonstrated hot-air and hydrogen balloons, respectively, and by 1785, a Frenchman named Blanchard teamed up with an American doctor named Jefferies to cross the English channel in a balloon. (They carried brandy instead of champagne.)

They had to jettison life jackets, brandy, even "trowsers," finally resorting to what Jefferies delicately called a "curious" expedient to lighten ship. But they made it.

Since then, balloons have been found to be of no pratical use which was fun. Austria bombed Venice with balloons, the Japanese bombed our West Coast with them, and Thaddeus S.C. Lowe recoverd from his trans-atlantic debacle to use them for aerial reconnaisance in the Civil War. On July 11, a Swedish engineer named Saloman August Andree took off from Spitsbergen to attempt the North Pole. He and two companions froze to death.

The Soviets complained in the 1950s that we were bombarding them with balloon-borne propaganda. And unmanned balloons have back weather data and carried rockets up to be launched high above the earth.

Then again, an unmanned balloon once traveled from Argentina to Western Australia, and by accident, too. It's the manned ones that are important.

After the Montgolfiers, ballooning became a craze. Fair-goers of the 19th century rode in them. Jules Verne's first great success, in 1863, was a novel entitled "Five Weeks in a Balloon." Edgar Allan Poe, up to his old tricks, briefly deceived readers of a transtlantic balloon ride.

But generally attempts to make ligher-than-air craft more efficient with shaping and engines have failed, witness the Hindenburg disaster of May 6, 1937.

So why, in the 1970s, are we seeing the biggest ballooning craze in a long history - capped by this Atlantic crossing?

The combination of nylon, propane and the invention of such arcana as the Jesus bolt and the hoo-hoo vent have increased the number of hot air balloonist from practically none a decade ago to a few thousands today, according to informed estimates.

Helium, at an estimated $15,000 to fill the victoriors Double Eagle 11, is expensive to say the least.

"It's absolutely silent up there," says Paul Tychsen, who has helped design six transatlantic attempts. "You could hear a key turn in a lock a mile away."

Says Mike Kohler, director of the Blue Ridge Balloonport: "There's a sense of freedom, escape, a different world. It's a very secure feeling."

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung may have hit a reason when he explained away flying saucers by saying that we want to see round things, symbols of wholeness over our fragmented world.

There's always the champagne, of course.

But to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway's line about the leopard carcass near the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, no one has explained what the balloonists are seeking at that altitude.