Men of the Sky

Reproduced from Herald Magazine

W. A. JOHNSTON March 1 1909

Men of the Sky

Reproduced from Herald Magazine

W. A. JOHNSTON March 1 1909


THRILLING experiences?” repeated Leo Stevens. “Oh, sure! You get them in ballooning, naturally. In a way it’s like leaving suddenly for a new world and getting there in a few minutes—a strange land of wonderful sights and sensations, great air currents, clouds, rainbows, snow and rain factories, cyclones—yes, don’t forget cyclones.

“My most dangerous experience came just last summer—after twenty-three years of ballooning.

“Allan Hawley and I made an ascent at Pittsfield, Mass., taking along a young chauffeur from the city, of whom the local aero club wished to make a licensed pilot.

“A licensed pilot, you know, must have made in all at least ten ascents, two of which must be conducted under a regular pilot, one alone and one at night.”

Stevens stopped and chuckled. “This young chap got all his experience concentrated in this one trip, I guess, and Mr. Hawley and I each had a new one.

“We went up very nicely— straight up for a few thousand feet —and then floated away from the city toward Dalton, a suburb. It was a fine, clear day, the weather predictions were favorable, and when we struck our course we began plotting on the map just how far we should go and about where we might land.

“Just over Dalton the balloon stopped for a moment and circled easily back toward Pittsfield. This move was against our calculations, and we thought it rather funny. Were we going eastward, after all?

“That was decided very quickly. Just east of the city we stopped again and came back in a narrower circle, more swiftly this time, and so around again and again, swifter swifter, swifter—and then, as quick as a flash, we plunged into night.

“There was a great long streak of pale light straight up from our heads—a sort of road to heaven, it struck me—and then came a roar like the sound of a cataract. We were still circling, but in such a small, fast circumference that it made us dizzy. And all the time there was a rasping, grating noise under the basket.

“We’re scraping the tops of trees!” yelled the boy, and that was the last thing I heard him say. Suddenly there was a flash of light, and Hawley leaned over the car.

“‘My God!’ said he, ‘look at that!’

“He pointed at a drag rope. For a moment I saw it. It was flying taut like a curved whiplash above our heads. Then it dawned upon me what had happened. We were caught in a cyclone cloud—caught in the tail of it—and were being sucked up through the centre.

“How far up were we?”

“Well, maybe seven thousand feet. We couldn’t see the instruments.”

Stevens’ nervous face was alight with the memory of the lightning-like trip.

“Great Scott!” said he. “It was fearful. Seemed like a monster was running away with us and shaking the car with might and main to fling us out. It was hard work to hold fast.

“ ‘You're in for it,’ I told Hawley.

“He smiled a little. ‘Well, I’m in for the best of it,’ said he. And we didn’t have time to talk much from that time on.

“I looked at the boy. He was crouched down in the car on his knees, gripping the side of the basket with his hands—and teeth, it seemed. Just as his eyes showed over the top I spoke to him, called him by name, yelled at him and finally kicked him. But not a word out of him, not even a look. I wonder what he was thinking of?— praying probably for an automobile to take him home!

“It seemed as if we ought to do something, but, after all, there was nothing to do. We must wait, that’s all.

Hawley motioned toward the safety valve, but I shook my head.

“ ‘I’m not going to valve,’ I yelled. ‘Not yet!’

“You see, I figured that it was false suction pulling us up, and no device in the world could check that ascent. Just think of that drag rope! We couldn’t do a thing till we were free. To attempt any tricks might prove fatal. Struggling against a cyclone is like dealing with a balky wild beast—you’d best lie low till each gets good natured.

“Well, we got to the end of that long funnel after a while and seemed to pop out suddenly upon what looked like a dark, billowy sea. Then we began to descend.

“I remember hoping that we would not land on Mount Greylock. We were going down fast and threw out most of our sand, then our rugs, carrying cover and lunch basket.

“Suddenly the ground loomed up and I saw an open field and farmhouse. A man was ploughing and I yelled at him. He thought some one was calling to him from the front of the house and hurried away, leaving his horses. We were coming down directly over them and I threw out my last half-sack of sand. The balloon stopped, quivered a moment, floated away and landed nicely.

“It was some time before the boy found his voice. Then he looked at me and said: ‘You look awful white, Mr. Stevens.’ ”

Stevens stopped and laid a warning finger upon my arm. “Now, that sounds mighty dangerous,” said he, “climbing a cyclone a mile and more into the sky. In a way it was—for an inexperienced person. But inexperienced people don’t go up alone, and, anyway, it was more spectacular than perilous. You mustn't get the idea that ballooning is dangerous. It isn’t. My own record proves that, and every other balloonist will tell you the same thing.

“How often do you read of a balloonist being killed? If there is an accident every newspaper the world over has an account of it. And yet, when the Hudson Terminal Building was begun in this city twenty-six Italian caisson diggers failed to call for their time checks, so I am told. The news was never published.

“Ballooning is wonderfully spectacular. Last summer over Pittsfield I saw snow in the making. It was beautiful.

“There were seven of us in the car. We were at an altitude of one and a quarter miles.

“First the snow resembled a great shower of granulated sugar. The sun shining through it gave it all the rainbow colors, so that it looked like a great shower of confetti. Then the reflection of the sun’s rays played queer freaks. At times the shower appeared to go up instead of down, sweeping by us as though whirled up from the earth by some enormous blast. Down below us when the light cleared we could see the specks spread out into big, beautiful flakes.”

Stevens’ face lighted up with an aeronaut’s enthusiasm. “I love to live in the air!” he exclaimed. “Once the launching ropes are off I am happy. And, leaning back in his chair, he gave me a picture of an ascension I shall never forget.

You are floating softly upward into a great blue ocean of air, fresh, sweet, exhilarating. Swiftly the earth sinks away beneath you, bowling up around the horizon line till it seems like the mouth of an enormous crater. The noisy shouts of “Bon voyage!” die away in a faint wavering strain, and soon you are in the midst of original silence. Not a sound is heard save the quick ticking of the barograph.

The earth changes into a great, strange map. Tall buildings look like pepper boxes, and then are lost in the general squatness. Cities and villages become mere diffused outlines of ground plots. Fences change into tiny, evanescent lines; roads look like pale yellow ribbons and rivers like silver cracks in the earth’s surface.

Over there is a thin white streak of smoke weaving its length over the green vista. A train is rushing along. Suddenly it is gone, swallowed up, it would seem, in that strange looking earth. But no. It has merely plunged into a tunnel beneath a towering mountain, the very presence of which is lost to the balloonist’s eye.

Now you pass above the clouds and into a dazzling sunlight. The white billows beneath, with the shadow of the car upon them, look like great trackless fields of snow. So realistic is the scene it seems as if you could put on snowshoes and walk away.

You are on a new planet now roused with a wonderful exhilaration. Beautiful rainbow effects create a veritable fairyland all about you. Suddenly a faint, weird music of sweetest cadence strikes the ear and is gone as swiftly as it came. That is some great, jarring noise from the earth or the heterogeneous roar of a big city merged into measured vibrations of harmony and wafted up to your new world by some upspringing current of air.

Stevens laughed suddenly and caught my arm. He had stopped talking and I did not know it. “Come back to earth,” said he. “How high up were you?”

“Yes,” he continued seriously, “ballooning is wonderfully spectacular, but it is not dangerous. I can give you an apt illustration.

“Just recently I made some ascensions in Springfield, Mass. One day, after I had finished luncheon at a home in the city, the young man of the family got me aside and told me in whispers how eager he was to go up. I promised to give him the first opportunity and ’phoned him next day.

“ ‘Want to go up?’ I asked.

“‘You bet your life!’ said he, dropping the ’phone, and in ten minutes’ time he was over in the field and excitedly shaking my hand.

“His sister learned of it somehow and drove up hurriedly, just as we were ready to get in the car. She was very much scared and cried and threatened by turns, trying to induce her brother to give up the ascension and go back with her. Finally she whipped up her horse and drove home to get her father and bring him out.

“Well, we had a fine trip and got back to the city just as the evening papers were out. We stopped in front of a double bulletin board, and there, on one side, was the announcement of our trip and on the other the news of his sister’s accident. Her horse had run away and she had been seriously injured.

“Now,” concluded Stevens, “for my own part, and so far as safety is concerned, I’ll take a balloon trip in preference to land traveling every time. It has been proven safer.

“How many people who object to the sport really know what a modern balloon is? Very few.

“I had an amusing experience in this respect last year in New England. A prominent resident of Springfield decided to make an ascension with me, but kept the news from his wife, who was highly nervous and had a heart weakness.

“The day we went up some kind friend imparted the news to her, and as the balloon passed over her house she fainted away and was ill for two weeks. After that, of course, I steered clear of meeting her.

“Last summer, however, in Springfield the two—husband and wife—motored out to see me. She seemed quite pleasant after she found I was not an inhuman monster, and was greatly interested while I showed the balloon to her and explained its operation. She was much surprised, too; said she had only seen one balloon, and that from a distance. It was a small, hot air balloon, such as parachutists use, and it caught fire a short distance up. Whenever she thought of a balloon, she said, this picture always entered her mind.

‘“Why don’t you go up?’ I suggested.

“‘Oh, my!’ she said, turning to her husband. 'I should like to. Can I go?’

“We made an ascension the next day. In mid-air she turned to me and said: ‘Do you know, I have never felt so well and strong as I do this minute?’

“You see, the thin air, lack of pressure and everything made her heart work more easily. And altogether she was the most pleased woman I have ever seen. Before we descended she had made her husband promise to buy a balloon, and now they are devotees of the sport.”

Other American women who have taken up ballooning are Mrs. Max Fleischman, of Cincinnati; Mrs. A. R. Lambert, of St. Louis, and in New York Mrs. Courtlandt Field Bishop, Mrs. Newbold Leroy Edgar and Mrs. Julian R. Thomas. In England the Honorable Mrs. Asshton Harboard is the owner of several balloons, has many ascents to her credit and has twice crossed over the English Channel.

“It is simply a matter of getting used to the idea,” said Stevens, “and then becoming familiar with the balloon and its safety devices. Then an ascension follows, and once an ascension is made you have an enthusiast.

“Interest is awakening all over the country. In the Middle West and in New England it is not an uncommon sight now to see a balloon in the air almost every fine day. Whenever I make an ascension there are a number of lady teachers present taking down notes about the construction of a balloon and its methods of operation. These are taught in the class room, and the idea is a good one. We must become educated up to ballooning. I do not believe that any form of aerial navigation will ever compete commercially with the present means of transportation, yet in many ways it is the thing of the future.

“In a few years we shall have transatlantic and transcontinental balloons of the dirigible type—so soon, in fact, that their advent will surprise us all, just as the aeroplane performances of the Wright brothers did. Before that time we shall have aerodromes in every large city and in many smaller ones, parks and buildings where balloons may be stored and inflated and where ascents may be made. These will be established very shortly.”

The present day balloon enthusiasts are pioneers, it must be borne in mind, and to them is due a good deal of credit for their unselfish efforts to promote the sport and bring its delights and usefulness before the general public. It is but a few years ago that the balloon was only a showman’s device, and its utility was based altogether upon a matter of gate receipts; to-day it bids fair to play a very prominent part in the sports, the transportation facilities and the international relations of more than half the civilized world.

Still more credit is due professional aeronauts—men like Stevens and Captain Baldwin. The balloon in its former restricted sphere was a very lucrative source of livelihood to them. Then its operation was invested with a sort of magic known to a very few, and it would seem natural that they should prefer to jealously maintain this situation instead of being prime movers in a general campaign of education.

This year, Stevens says, he will come out even for the first time in his manufacturing experience. In his parachuting days he made as much as $2,500 in a single day. All his present ascensions—in New England, New York, the Middle West—are made at his own expense. So, too, were his ascents for the government. It seems strange that an individual should have to take the initiative and bear the necessary expense in such a matter when to-day most nations are struggling to increase their balloon service with much the same competitive energy that they devote to enlarging their naval armament.

“I’ve just returned from Milwaukee and Ohio,” said Stevens, “and I had many odd experiences there.

“My hotel was thronged with visitors pretty much all day long. I had a good deal of trouble getting in and out and avoiding them. Some people simply wanted to talk with me; others were cranks with flying machine devices; a few wanted to make ascents.

“One young fellow came to me with money. I understand,” said he, ‘that you charge $100 to take a passenger up.’

“ ‘No,’ said I, I don’t charge anything. Why, do you want to go up?’

“ ‘Well, I’ll tell you,’ he said. ‘I’m the janitor of a bank here in town. There’s a young clerk there, son of the president, who has plenty of money and is very chesty and snobbish. He is going up with you tomorrow and is constantly boasting about it. Now, I’d like to beat him by going up to-day. If you’ll take me, I’ve got $300 saved up and $150 of it is yours.’

“That’s a fair sample of the requests I get,” said Stevens. “But the general awakening of interest is encouraging, anyway.”

We had been talking in the Stevens balloon factory, the only institution of its kind in New York, or, for that matter, in the country. It covers two and a half floors, and at its busiest time has about as many employes, the fraction existing in the person of a stately black cat, who plays the part of night watchman.

Here is a varied assemblage of all things balloonwise cluttering the floor and hanging from the rafters: Ropes in bundles and loose coils, ballast bags of stone, denim, anchors of all sizes, hampers, baskets, netting, rings and a dozen odds and ends of equipment and paraphernalia.

In a row along one side are canvas covered bundles of varying size, gas bags packed and ready for shipment, and in the corner is a loose tumble of white cloth. That’s a balloon in the making.

The sewing of the gas bag and assembling of the parts of the complete balloon are done in the factory. A cotton and linen mixed cloth is generally used—sometimes Japanese and Chinese silk. After the stitching is done the bag must be varnished, and that requires a much larger space.

So the factory has an adjunct in Hoboken, a large skating rink, with a roof sixty-five feet in the clear. Here the bag is varnished, pumped full of air and rolled over on its side, to be inspected carefully for leaks. Some weeks are required for drying, and, all in all, it takes from sixty to seventy-five days to build and dry a balloon for shipment.

A balloon to carry two persons and with a gas bag of 22,000 cubic feet costs between $500 and $600. The inflation costs but $18, so the sport as compared, for instance, with automobiling, is not an expensive one.

The structure of the balloon is simple. Briefly, it consists of a spherical gas bag and a concentrating ring underneath, to which is attached the tail-like appendix and safety valve, opened and closed by a cord which dangles down into the car.

The car, hung by ropes to the network which covers the gas bag, is a stout wicker basket, lined with canvas and with movable stripe for seats. The interior may be fitted up very luxuriously and provided with small buffets and hampers. Thermal bottles and self-heating cans provide a hot and elaborate lunch whenever desired.

Along one side of the gas bag is a narrow, imposed strip, ending in a cord in the car. This is the “ripping cord.” It is used for quick deflation and is a very important accessory, fulfilling the opposite function of the ballast bags, which are carried in the car and hung on ropes about the side. Briefly, in operating a balloon it is sand out to go up and gas out (through the “ripping cord”) to go down.

“The balloonist fears water most of all,” said Stevens. “If you see yourself approaching a large body of it and don’t care to cross you can easily make a quick descent by means of the ripping cord. But if it is misty, so that you cannot see far ahead, and you don’t know just where you are it is rather risky. I’ve just had that sort of experience out in Milwaukee, and I found this little instrument of much help.”

He showed me a small brass contrivance that looks like the chopped off end of a cornet. It is attached by a heavily insulated wire to good sized dry batteries. “That’s an electric ‘siren’ whistle,” said he. “It can be heard five miles away, and then the batteries are good for ballast.

“Its use is to warn people of your approach, so that they will be ready and in fit condition to talk to you and tell you where you are. You see, it often takes half a minute for your megaphone call to reach the earth, and even if they answer promptly another half minute for their answer to reach you. Now, if you are flying along at the rate of forty miles an hour you can see the disadvantage you labor under.

“We have laughable experiences in the country. When you approach a farmhouse the chickens see the shadow of the balloon first and start an awful uproar. Then the pigs take it up, and by the time you are over the house the family is half mad and half crazy with fright. Generally when I yell down ‘Where are we?’ I get only an open-mouthed look and the answer—a very gratifying one—‘Hey! Where are you going?’

“We had lots of fun with this siren.

“I suppose it does sound unearthly to hear this hair-raising screech come out of the sky. But what antics we saw!

“Two Swedes dropped down beside their plough horses and began praying. Another man rolled over and covered his head with his coat. Generally, though, the brave fellows just cut and run for their wives and families. Then they would come out with grandfather’s flintlock and defy us to do our worst.

“I’ll never forget a trip I made years ago from St. Louis to Michigan. We were above a tornado at one time and it was a remarkable sight. Not a bit of trouble where we were. You could scarcely know you were moving, and not a sound from the earth reached us. But we could see big trees bend and break and fields of grain swept flat as a floor.

“The storm was still on when we tried a landing, and an exciting time we had of it. We were swept through an orchard, breaking our anchor and tearing off big branches of trees. We crashed to the ground right in front of the farmhouse, where a tall old lady stood defiantly guarding the door. We called rather unexpectedly and, considering the damage done in the orchard and all, she had good reason to be mad.

“‘Where did you fellers come from?’ she demanded.

“‘St. Louis,’ said I.

“She stared at us, took off her glasses, wiped them and stared again.

“‘Now, that will do!’ said she, and walked in and slammed the door.”

The first dirigible balloon built in this country was designed in the Stevens factory. Strung on the wall are the original skeleton models, long wooden frames, with sharp pointed ends.

“Dirigibles have followed spherical balloons,” said Stevens, “and are fast coming into practical use. They are the balloons of the future.

“Handling a dirigible, however, is altogether a different matter. In the first place more care must be taken in filling them with gas so that the inflation will be even throughout. Then one must understand the operation of the engine, another matter altogether. The dirigible costs much more, too— about $5,000.

“Just as soon as aeronauts accustom themselves to being up in the air and handling an ordinary balloon they will take the dirigible easily enough. I expect to see them in fairly common use within a few years. Then our much vaunted airship era will be on.

“The aeroplane will never become popular. The dying machine is to ballooning what tightrope walking is to ordinary sports—it all depends on the operator, who must be an acrobat.

“Handling an aeroplane demands constant attention and genuine agility of the professional kind. Constant concentration of thought is necessary. Forget an instant and you are gone.

“But dirigibles—well, here’s a proposition. Let’s take a dirigible trip to Europe in 1915. Will you go?”