LAUNCH minus one hour finds Rosie O’Grady being inflated at Caribou, Maine (left), on the evening of September 14. When the 101,480- cubic-foot gasbag is fully inflated, I take to the air, riding a fast-moving barometric high east, in a flight profile (map, above) that I manage to keep almost level the entire way.
Hour 10: Leveling off at 10,000 feet, I pick up 57-knot winds that could speed me to Europe in less than two days. Later they slow to 53 knots and finally to 25 off France, delaying me when almost in sight of the continent. Temperatures range from 15°F to minus 5°.
Hour 18: A very close call. As I light the gasoline cooking stove, it erupts in flame, enveloping the rear of the gondola. I manage to douse the fire with an extinguisher. Luckily that works—I’m a long way from a fire station.
Hour40: Here, and on two later occasions, Rosie O’Grady and I are shaken by sonic booms from high-flying aircraft. The shock waves slam into the balloon without warning, sounding like 100,000 pounds of dynamite going off.
Hour 60: I take a moment’s break over the Bay of Biscay (below). So far I have slept in short stretches for a total of less than two hours, but my mind seems clear and reaction time normal. I will need both for the challenge of landing.
BOTH BY JOE W. KITTINGER, JR.
Hour 80: The Mediterranean is below (left) as I approach the French-Italian border. My goal is to go as far as possible, hoping to add distance records to the solo transatlantic prize. I have been on oxygen roughly half the flight, not to ease breathing but to help fight fatigue. My ballast is practically gone, and I have jettisoned expendable food, empty oxygen cylinders, and extra clothes. Time to look for a landing site.
HOUR 83: Altitude 1,500 feet and dropping (left) . Surface winds have begun to gust up to 25 knots, making me doubly aware of power lines, autostradas, and forested slopes down below. I have company—four circling helicopters, one of them chartered by Touchdown: 83 hours and 40 minutes after launch, Rosie O’Grady returns to earth (right), slammed by strong winds into a wooded hillside. The powerful force of the impact hurls me to the ground ten feet below, breaking a bone in my right foot.
TD plus 10 minutes: The foot is forgotten in a reunion with Sherry (below), whose helicopter had landed nearby. Local woodcutters look on as she expresses the elation of our entire crew: “We made it!”
TD PLUS 20 minutes: As the foot begins to hemorrhage, fatigue and pain catch up with me (left). I have an excellent firstaid kit, complete with painkillers and an inflatable rubber leg splint. But we are only half an hour by helicopter from a large hospital in Nice, France, and I decide to wait.
In retrospect the flight seems a textbook exercise, with nearly everything going according to plan except for the faulty stove and a few mishaps such as my broken foot. But injuries are to be expected in ballooning, and I have suffered many more in my parachuting career.
Though this was officially a solo flight, it could never have been achieved without all of my support crew: Ed Yost, Rosie O’Grady’s builder; meteorologist Bob Rice of Weather Services Corp.; Bob Snow, a major sponsor and owner of Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus in Orlando, Florida; Gaetan Croteau, our Canadian backer and organizer; my operations chief, D. K. Hargrove; and of course Sherry.
In the moment of success my thoughts turn to others before me who challenged the Atlantic by balloon, including an early attempt in 1873. During the next century five lives were lost before three Americans—Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman–succeeded in 1978 in their balloon Double Eagle II. Tragically, my friend Maxie—after making the first nonstop balloon flight across North America in 1980 with his son, Kristian—was to die in a balloon race in June 1983.*
TD plus 30 minutes: Like a Roman emperor I am carried in triumph on the shoulders of the woodcutters to a waiting helicopter (above). They were so colorfully dressed and so obviously smitten with Sherry that I could only think of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
After receiving treatment and a cast at the hospital in Nice, I knew all about the valerian side effects returned that evening with some of our crew to Cairo Montenotte for a victory party.
Celebrations followed in Rome, Paris, and my hometown of Orlando, Florida. Through years of planning, our motto had always been “Go for it!” We did, and in the end we succeeded.