Maury Z. Levy

Where Did You Go? Up. What Did You Do? Nothing.

In WomenSports magazine on September 2, 2009 at 3:51 pm


In the morning by the moonlight, they began to play. Over the rich green fields of Princeton, where the sky was a deep purple haze, the splashes of orange that stained the horizon told them that time was running out. If they wanted to get it up by sunrise, while the winds were still and the deer were asleep in the forest next door, they’d have to turn the fan on high.

Her friends, the friends of the pilot, the ones who had driven down from New York to New Jersey in a procession of silver Mercedes with diplomatic license plates, helped spread the big nylon bag on the ground. As the fan kept blowing, the flattened bag became slowly pregnant, the right side laying flat on its back on the grass as the left side puffed and swelled and grew.

The sun, which had been fighting inevitability for al­most an hour, was up now to a huge horizontal half-moon of golden rays that streaked Pamela Henry’s waist-brown hair to an ashy chrome. She pulled up the zipper in her shiny red jump suit and laced up her high black boots and walked into the hole of the still-growing, starred and striped balloon like a cherry bomb that had been swal­lowed by a whale.

Because she was so small and so light, she could do this well, walking inside the big bag that still lay on the ground, smoothing out all the wrinkles, lining up all the creases. It was a new balloon, never flown before, just unpacked from Texas, and the fresh new folds made crink­ling noises as the rushing air pulled them apart.

It took shape slowly. It was like blowing up a plastic swimming pool with your mouth, only a lot bigger and longer and a lot more dangerous.

As the people from the silver cars pulled very hard on the cables, the big, stubborn bag finally became erect and firm over the steel and wicker gondola. It was full now, and it stood there in the still grass tall and proud and incongruous, like an eight-story building from another century, another world.

The long red and white stripes reached up to a strip of stars on a bright blue field. Pam Henry climbed into the little cage at the bottom and looked straight up into the hole. The sun was now a back light to the east. In the light, you could see the endless crisscross of reinforced nylon cord, the stuff that was carefully woven in to keep the big bag from breaking.

She pulled hard and fast on the ripcord that opened the propane jets just over her head. Small flames shot out each time she tugged. One of her gauges showed the quick temperature change. Within minutes, the balloon was full of hot air and ready to go.  

The people on the ground held on to the tether ropes as she started to lift. From inside the gondola, where barely two people could fit, it was hard to tell just when they had let the ropes go. The balloon went up in the summer breeze like it had just slipped out of the hand of a child. It climbed straight up and then drifted in the wind. The people on the ground watched as the eight-story building turned into a small bubble with a laundry basket underneath. Then they got in their cars and started to chase it across the countryside.

The ride was still and silent. From a few thousand feet up you could hear birds chirping and the scattering deer as they ran through the trees to escape the darkness of the sudden shadow.

The only noise was the occasional whoosh of the gas as it jumped from the jets to keep the air hot, to keep the balloon up, to give Pam Henry what little control she had, heating it to lift up a few hundred feet to catch a quick current that would help her change direction. There was no set flight plan, no telling where it would all end. Only the winds knew that. And the winds weren’t talking.

Pam Henry, who is 30 years old and a very handsome woman, leaned back on the four-foot-high railing, the only thing that kept her from falling out of the sky. There were no seats in the basket, and certainly no seat belts. It was a stand-up flight. Pam Henry had stood for a lot of them.

She started flying balloons in 1967, back when there were only about 25 balloonists in the whole country. Now, there are about 300 of them. She went up with a good deal of experience in other types of aircraft. She had her multiengine pilot license, a prerequisite for ballooning. She’d flown everything from big jets to seaplanes to an open cockpit World War II bomber.

Back in ’67, she was one of only three women in the country flying balloons. The FAA examiner who took her out for her test wasn’t very thrilled about that, about going up in an open laundry basket with a woman.

“Really,” Pam Henry says, “he was scared to death to go up with me. He finally told me to go up by myself and to just take a short flight. He said he’d rather follow in the chase truck, on the ground.”

It was a safe trip, just like her hundreds of ascensions since. Pam Henry has lost count. She’s certainly had her share of close calls; that’s all part of the sport. But she’s never had an accident.

“I’m a woman,” she says. “And not a very big woman at that. I’m not as strong as a man. I know my limitations. A lot of men don’t. At least they won’t admit they do. A lot of guys go up with their egos inflated more than the balloon. And ego is probably the biggest cause of balloon accidents. It usually overpowers common sense. A big, husky man sees danger coming, but he just doesn’t want to chicken out. It only takes a couple of seconds to pull the release cord and let the air out. Then these things work like giant parachutes. Too many men would rather not bail out. They like to think they can navigate themselves out of any situation. You just don’t have that much control over these things. I know too many former balloon­ists who’ve tried to navigate around high tension wires.”

Pam Henry has cautiously worked her way up to become probably the top female balloon racer in the country and one of the most respected balloonists in the world. She lived in Paris for awhile and gave ballooning lessons throughout France and Italy. A little while back, in England, she won her first international race.

It was a strange race, but then it takes a certain kind of person to fork out 6,000 bucks to buy a balloon to race in the first place. The guidelines for balloon racing are about as rigid as the rules for a Tupperware party. The organizers sort of make things up as they go. Some races are for distance, some for accuracy, some over obstacle courses.

The race in England was something else again. Six balloons from different countries went up for a period of 30 minutes. The winner would be the person who traveled the least distance in that time. The race called for a lot of tricky navigation, a lot of ups and downs. You were also allowed to reach out of the basket and hold onto trees.

Pam Henry won by traveling only a few hundred feet. It was a good outing, but not her personal best. “I went up one time when there was absolutely no wind,” she says. “I stayed up for over three hours. When I finally came down, we measured the distance. I’d only gone 75 feet.

“There’ve been other times when I’ve traveled for miles, only to have the wind currents change on me and blow me right back to the spot I started from. That’s the great thing about ballooning. No two flights are exactly the same. There are so many variables. It depends on how strong the sun is shining, how strong the wind is blowing, how much the passengers weigh. The maximum feeling of course is flying by yourself. It’s like flying away from the world. But you rarely get to fly solo unless you’re com­peting. Somebody always wants to go up with you. And you can’t blame them. I started flying the same way.”

Pam Henry grew up in Maple Glen, Pennsylvania, which is about an hour’s balloon ride from Philadelphia, if you’ve got a good wind at your back. Her father was an Air Force pilot, and when he got out of the service, he took the flying bug with him. He had a hang-up for model airplanes, which he hung up all over his room. He also maintained a small Piper Cub to get him around in his textile business.

Pam Henry decided she wanted to fly when she was 12. She rode in her father’s plane. It was a very smooth operation. She was impressed by the calmness and the serenity. She flew with other people as much as she could as she grew up. Just about every other kid on her block was hoping to buy a car after graduation. Pam Henry’s feet were just never that close to the ground.

Right after her graduation from the University of North Carolina as a math major, she went out and got her pilot’s license. She got her first ride in a balloon on a 42 day she was supposed to be out in a plane. The guy with the balloon was using the same airport. And he invited her up. That was her only time as a passenger. The next week she took her first lesson.

You need 30 hours of flying time to qualify for a ballooning license and you’ve got to go through a very tough written exam that asks you a lot more than you’ll ever need to know. Pam Henry read every manual she could get her hands on.

“You can read about it all you want,” she says, “but flying one of these things is something you won’t find in a book. You’ve got to have it in you. It’s really just a feel. You can know about air temperatures and wind velocities, but nothing beats experience. Nothing beats flying.”

Much of Pam Henry’s life now centers around ballooning. Her experience teaching in France got her a job in New York as a translator and associate in a foreign ex­change business run by a Frenchman. That pays the rent. Her prime passion right now is to put together a film on ballooning. She’s been working on that for almost a year.

Researching the film has made her somewhat of a balloon historian. It’s been a pretty untouched field. She’s found most people think all balloons are alike, that most people with their feet on the ground wouldn’t know Thomas Gatch from Phineas Fogg. There are simple differences.

Pam Henry is a hot air balloonist. You know the balloon in the Lark cigarette ad? Well, that’s it. In fact, the guy who owns that balloon was Pam Henry’s teacher. Anyway, a hot air balloon is sort of an oval mushroom filled with nothing but good old fresh air. The propane gas heats that air to various temperatures, causing the balloon to go up or down. The cost of the balloon is the main expense in hot air ballooning. The propane won’t run you more than $15 a day.

Now, Thomas Gatch used something very different. He’s the guy who tried to cross the Atlantic a while ago and hasn’t been heard from since. He didn’t have just one balloon. His craft was a somewhat makeshift collection of helium-filled weather balloons, many small balloons clustered together. So when you mention Pam Henry and Thomas Gatch in the same sentence, you are almost talking oranges and apples.

Phineas Fogg was a lot closer. He of course was the main man in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days.” He was propelled by a large single balloon. There were only two major differences—the shape, which was almost perfectly round, and the contents. That was a gas balloon. Gas balloons are much quieter and they can go higher and farther than hot air balloons. There’s only one problem. At current costs, you’d need at least $500 worth of gas to make one flight. That’s a pretty heavy load.

That’s why hot air balloons have become the rage, if you can call 300 balloons in a country of 200 million people a rage. Most balloonists are happy with hot air. All you need is a 100-foot-square spot to inflate. You could even do the whole job yourself if you had to, although a ground crew of five or six friends is preferred.

Most hot air balloonists don’t like to take off if the ground winds are stronger than five mph. That’s why most flights start at dawn, when it’s calm. Maximum speed is about 15 mph. And the size, or volume, of the balloon determines how high you can go. A 50,000-cubic-foot number like Pam Henry’s weighs about 500 pounds and can go as high as 12,500 feet. Your large economy-size balloon holds about 80,000 cubic feet and can fly as high as 15,000 feet. The other important ingredient is heat. You’ve got to watch both the propane power in the tanks and the strength of the sun. If a balloon gets hotter than 275 degrees, the threads in the nylon will start to melt, and you hope you’re over a nice flat field.

The baskets, or gondolas, really haven’t changed much over the years. They started out as wicker. The recent balloon boom introduced a lot of metal ones. But now there seems to be a trend back to wicker, with some metal reinforcement. The wicker makes for a softer landing and gives you less worry about high-tension wires.

So things really haven’t changed much since the first ascent of living things, in France, back in 1783. The passengers, riding in a wicker cage under a paper and cloth balloon, were a sheep, a duck and a rooster. It was thought at that time that it was the smoke and not the hot air that made the balloon rise. So they kept throwing garbage and wool stockings into the furnace at Versailles. Marie Antoinette, who bought a front-row seat from a scalper, couldn’t stand the smell and made them stop. When the balloon finally got up, it went two miles in eight minutes, but King Louis XVI called off any further ascents because the rooster had injured a wing. It was only after ten courtiers swore they had seen the sheep kick the rooster just before the launch that Louis gave in, clearing the way for the first manned and womanned ascents.

The history is a long and sometimes tragic one. Pam Henry’s favorite heroine is Madeleine-Sophie Blanchard, who was married to daredevil Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who toured the US and Europe in the early 1800s giving ballooning exhibitions.

She had this habit of setting off fireworks during her ascensions. And one day in Paris, before a cheering crowd, her basket caught fire. She was so busy putting out the fire, she lost track of the wind. A quick gust crashed her into the roof of a house. She fell to the street, broke her neck and died.

Pam Henry has yet to carry fireworks on board. But she’s taken along about everything else. In one international meet of over 100 balloonists in New Mexico, she had to go up with a bicycle, travel for 30 minutes, land and ride the bike back to the starting point to win.

Another part of the same competition had her flying out to the desert to gather up tumbleweed, fill her basket with it and drop the load on a target in the center of a stadium miles away

There’s no tumbleweed back in Princeton, her favorite takeoff spot, just a lot of nice rolling green and some long strips of forest. Pam Henry is traveling over the forest.

“This always happens,” she says. “You’ve got nice safe landing spots on both sides of you, but the wind ends up pulling you over the trees. Now I’ve got to take it up a little to try to catch a different current.”

She pulls hard on the propane cord and there’s a slight splatter and a large flame. The jet has sprung a leak and caught on fire. She quickly pulls her­self up on the rigging and, with all the composure of a kid blowing out a birthday cake, she puffs the fire away.

“This is more than just serene beauty,” she says as she climbs back down. “It’s physical. First you’re rushing to inflate, to get everything ready, to get it up, and then you’ve got to be ready for anything up here. You feel a certain sort of exhaustion when you finish a ride. But it’s a good exhaustion, a fresh-air exhaustion, like after skiing.”

With the chase cars in sight, she finally spots a small patch of green and decides to take it down in somebody’s backyard. She rips the rope that’s attached to a long slit on one side of the balloon. It’s held together with Velcro. Once it’s opened, the air rushes out and she starts coming down. She can see the ground more clearly now. The chase cars aren’t the only ones following her. There are a lot of curious people and a couple of curious cops.

“A lot of people get scared,” she says. “They think you’re in trouble when you start to come down. Some of them are afraid. They think you’ll land on their kids.”

As she gets near the ground, she drops the ground crew from the chase cars. Someone else is over talking to the cops.

“They claim it’s a hot air balloon,” one of them radios in. “Is there any law against that?”

When they can’t find anything to book her on, the cops run over to join Pam Henry in the celebration that always follows a safe landing. One of the people in the silver Mercedes runs over with a bottle of very fine imported champagne. She rips off the wire and tries to thumb out the cork. It doesn’t budge. She takes a deep breath and then grimaces and pushes it with all the strength she’s got. She twists and tugs and the cork finally moves up and out with a crackling pop and the golden foam bubbles out. She breathes a relieved sigh as she takes a big swallow.

“This,” she says, “is always the hardest part of the flight.”

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