The first manned balloon to cross the Pacific Ocean behaved like a roller coaster, plunging hundreds of feet then rising again in the frigid air two miles up, its crewmen reported today after they were picked up from a California mountain ridge.
Double Eagle V flight commander Ben Abruzzo, 51, told reporters gathered in this tiny northern California valley town that the trip was a "constant battle, flying with a tremendous load of ice."
Abruzzo said the crew jettisoned tape recorders, cameras and even clothing to lighten the gondola and, in the end, donned parachutes as the balloon lost altitude because of the ice and what some crew members suspected was a helium leak. For much of the journey, the ice-laden balloon would plunge from its 18,000-foot cruising altitude until warmer air melted the ice, then float up again, only to collect another heavy ice load.
When the 26-story balloon crossed the California coast Thursday night, having set a new long-distance record for gas balloons, the crew decided to abandon its plan to fly across the United States, the Atlantic Ocean, and Europe and perhaps even reach the western borders of the Soviet Union. "We were down to 5,000 feet, which is terrible," said Rocky Aoki, 43, of Miami, a Japanese citizen and owner of the Benihana restaurant chain, who financed the $250,000 venture.
Abruzzo, who led the crew which also included two other Albuquerque residents, Larry Newman, 34, and Ron Clark, 41, said "at the end we thought this was it." The flight came so near to ending in tragedy that the crew members had started putting on the parachutes as a last-ditch measure to survive.
With the balloon appearing about to collapse, the gondola struck the side of a ridge in Mendocino National Forest and the balloon itself caught in the trees above.
Newman, speaking to a crowd of journalists and residents of this 1,540-population town in the local school, said the front of the gondola was resting against the slope but the rear was still 20 feet off the ground. When they freed the gondola from the balloon with a small explosive charge, it crashed down, pushing a tree up through the gondola floor.
"All the equipment fell towards the back," Newman said. "Ben and I rolled on top of Ron and Rocky."
Aoki told reporters here he lost consciousness briefly. "We were lucky we survived, but life and death are next to each other anyway," Aoki said. "If you are afraid to die, you are probably afraid to live."
The balloon crashed in this area about 140 miles north of San Francisco at 10:36 p.m. Thursday night, nearly five days after it left Nagashima in central Japan early Monday. Its 5,300-mile transpacific voyage smashed the record for distance traveled in a gas balloon set by Maxie Anderson and his son, Kris, when they crossed 3,314 miles of North America last year.
The elder Anderson, with Abruzzo and Newman, made the first balloon crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1978, in the Double Eagle II.
Thursday night's landing came about 90 minutes after the 400,000-cubic foot polyethylene balloon crossed the coastline near Point Arena. Abruzzo was asked why he did not land on the shore, where the chance of a serious crash was less likely.
"I have been somewhat critical in the past of voyages that landed at sea or on the beach and did not seem to make a complete flight," Abruzzo said, "so we went further inland."
After radioing that they had landed and determining that no one was hurt, the crew members decided to sleep until they could be found this morning. They said they set off a radio beacon at 7:30 a.m., and within an hour helicopters had begun to arrive to pull them out. Their wives and family, who had been following the trip from the group's headquarters in Albuquerque, flew in here to meet them. They enjoyed a meal and hot baths and after speaking to reporters and local residents, flew to San Francisco.
The Double Eagle V landed here in the worst possible weather. A driving rain and windstorm continued to rock the northern California coast today, sending large rocks rolling down onto the narrow mountain road reporters used to reach this small community.
Newman said "the noise of the storm just before we landed was so loud we had to shout to hear each other, which is very strange in a balloon where it's usually very quiet."
Gas-filled balloons control their altitude by a system of jettisoning heavy objects called ballast to gain height and releasing gas to descend. As their ballast was exhausted, the crew had far less chance of controlling the balloon for a longer flight, despite the fact that they had a 30-day supply of food on board.
Anderson, who joined in the Atlantic Ocean voyage, attempted a round-the-world flight in a balloon called the Jules Verne earlier this year, but was forced down in Jaipur, India. He has said he plans to return to India and resume that voyage sometime before New Year's Day.