The HistoryOf The Boy Scout Hot-Air Balloons
The History of the Boy Scout Hot-Air Balloons
The spark that lit the idea for the Boy Scout hot-air balloons was in March of 1982. My second son, Alex, was planning a trip to visit his grandparents, Dr Alessandro and Maria Rossi-Espagnet, in Geneva, Switzerland. I remembered seeing in a travel magazine an advertisement for balloon rides over Switzerland and France that looked like a lot of fun for a 13 year old boy full of energy and interest in adventure. When I found out the price of this adventure, I thought for that price I could just buy a balloon and fly it myself. I already had a pilot’s license to fly “single engine, land” aircraft and felt It should be easy enough to fly a balloon. I still needed the information of what make of balloon to buy and where to buy it. I came across a photo of Luciano Pavarotti riding in a hot air balloon that appeared in a news magazine with the manufacturer of the balloon, Raven, written on the bottom edge. Figuring that Pavarotti certainly would be in the “best” balloon, I contacted the Raven company and found out that the cost the balloon would be two or three times the cost of the balloon ride in France, but by then I was hooked on the idea of buying a balloon myself. Why not put the scout logo on the balloon as an attraction to scouts? I was an active Scouter and had grown up as a scout, advancing in rank to Eagle Scout.
The thought of buying a balloon with the Scout logo on it was appealing because of the notion that this would promote Scouting and would be at the same time a deductible expense (I thought). The cost, however, would almost increase by double if the Boy Scout logo artwork was included, so I knew I needed help in financing this project.
The money was important but learning how to fly a hot-air balloon and becoming properly licensed was the next step. I didn’t know of anybody in Monroe, Louisiana who flew balloons or who could teach me to fly but one afternoon a sign from Heaven showed up in the form of the “Louisiana” balloon launching from our Civic Center to promote the State. The balloon was flown by Ernest Newton, a chain-smoking raconteur who was to become my flight instructor, cheerleader and friend for hot-air balloon flight. Ernest let me help him and his crew launch the Louisiana balloon from the downtown parking lot. We “chased” the balloon and Ernest landed at the Jesus the Good Shepherd School playground within 50 yards of the church I attended on Sundays. I was hooked. I knew I had to learn to fly. Ernest set up flight instruction for me in Baton Rouge on week-ends when the weather was clear. The 4 hour drive to Baton Rouge was always filled with anticipation before or excitement after the flying lessons. Ernest sold to me his old balloon, Swampwater Hattie, so I could learn to fly in a used balloon. Swampwater was also used to instruct my oldest son, Ralph, in balloon flight a couple of years later.
Ernest was commissioned to tether the Louisiana Balloon at the Peach Festival in Ruston, Louisiana on July 16, 1983. My first experience at tethering the balloon and actually handling the controls made me think that it was easier than it looks to fly a balloon. . I didn’t have to take the written balloon exam because I was already a licensed airplane pilot. I found the feeling of coming in for a landing in a balloon to be similar to the flaring out landing of an airplane. Later flights proved to me the need for the four requirements for successful balloon flight: Skill, Knowledge, Judgement and Luck. My first solo flight was in Baton Rouge in the Louisiana Balloon after about 12 hours of tether and flight instruction. I couldn’t wait to get back to Monroe and fly solo over my own home town as I gained the required 10 hours of flight alone to qualify for the check ride that would give me a private pilot designation allowing me to carry passengers.
The weather never seems to care if you want to fly and, typically, several days of bad weather kept me from flying in Monroe until December the 8th when I called my wife from the office that the weather looked good for a short hop right before sunset. Gabriella got the balloon trailer hooked up so as soon as I got home we could launch from a lot across the street from my house just to get the flight in before dark. I expected to pop up, fly over a few houses, and land in a nearby subdivision. My balloon crew, made up of my wife and my three sons, got me launched in adequate time. As planned I popped up over the neighborhood houses with the wind at about 6 knots. Within about 10 minutes I saw several nice landing places but couldn’t bring myself to land after such a short flight………so I flew on a little farther. Next I flew over our local Country Club, right over the swimming pool, and in a moment of euphoria considered a splash and dash in the pool among some of my friends who were there. Fortunately sanity prevailed for a short time and I flew on. I’d been flying for about 15 minutes and had 20 more minutes before official sunset. Seriously looking for a safe landing spot became more of a priority……..but the wind was taking me right over the rows of houses and NOT over the good landing fields I was looking for. My skill as a balloon pilot was not yet at the level that I could maneuver right or left to go where I wanted to go……so I flew on. As I flew I noticed the Ouachita River and some very big power lines directly ahead with only about 10 more minutes of daylight left. Gaining altitude and crossing the river and the power lines was the only safe alternative at that point even though darkness was settling. Unfortunately for my chase crew, we didn’t have radios yet. I promised myself at that moment that I would never fly again without radios to talk to my chase crew, who was having to make the decision to drive away from my line of flight and cross the bridge into West Monroe and hope they could pick up visual contact again. Directly over the river, official sunset occurred but fortunately God allows us a few more minutes of “dusk” before the blackness of night.
At this point, landing safely was the most important goal…….the location of landing was secondary. The wind had graciously slowed to about 2 or 3 knots so I could land in a small patch of cleared land at the edge of the swamp that bordered the river. I kept the balloon on the ground and inflated for about 15 more minutes with the hope my crew might see me glowing brightly in the pitch black of the Louisiana night and come get me out. When I saw headlights coming in my direction I felt safe that my crew had found me………except for the fact that the lights were on a jacked-up pick up truck with oversized mud tires that allowed maneuvering in that terrain. The two guys in the truck had been out “mudding” in the swamp and having a few beers. Their first question to me was “What da hell is dat?” After explaining as clearly and politely as possible that this had been an “emergency” landing and I needed help getting the balloon out of the swamp, I was pleased they agreed to help “if it didn’t take too long”. I collapsed the envelope an stuffed it in the balloon basket which my new best friends loaded into the back of their truck and carried me out to the nearest paved road where I waited under a street light hoping my crew would find me. About 20 minutes later my wife who was thinking she was probably a widow and my children were orphans, drove by to see me sitting on the balloon basket under a street light on a paved road. After many hugs and kisses they asked how I landed on a road under a light. A split-second of temptation to brag gave way to an overwhelming feeling that God just wasn’t ready for me yet and to file the many lessons learned on this flight away for future use. Swampwater Hattie was smiling.
The next fortuitous development occurred at a cocktail party in the home of one of my fellow physicians, Dr Frank Cline. I was on call so I couldn’t drink but as I explained my dream of a Boy Scout Balloon to some of my friends—who were drinking—I received enthusiastic support for the idea and several pledges for financial assistance in the interest of helping Scouting. This was all the encouragement I needed to contact a balloon company artist to draw the image of the Boy Scout Balloon. Ernest preferred Barnes Balloonworks company and flew their balloons exclusively……I think he had some kind of deal with them, perhaps as a distributor. At Ernest’s request I contacted the Balloonworks Balloon company for the artwork. As luck would have it, the artist was an Eagle Scout and took a special interest in doing the artwork right. He made the image of a black balloon with the fleur-de-lis Scout logo and a red/white/blue banner around the circumference. I requested a black balloon because I thought it would look classier, but found out later that a dark colored fabric flies better because the dark absorbs heat from the sun helping to keep the balloon up with more efficiency of fuel use.
When I took the artwork to my friends from the cocktail party, they said they vaguely remembered my talking to them about a balloon but they didn’t remember any pledges of financial help. Disappointed but not defeated, I went to other friends and neighbors who were past supporters of Scouting and asked for help in buying the balloon. Four good friends pledged and each gave me a check for $1000. They were Dr. Craig Folse, Dr Irving Kennedy, Landon Miles and Jim Steele. With $4000 in hand I felt I was almost there for buying the balloon but I needed at least one big donor to buy half of the balloon so I could raise the other half in smaller increments.
It was then that I took the artwork to my high school friend, Hank Biedenharn, whose family owned the local Coca Cola distributership and had faithfully supported Scouting in the past. Hank said he liked the idea but he wanted to show it to his dad. He came back a few minutes later and said “He likes it” but there would have to be one change………he wanted the Coca Cola logo to be placed on the other side of the balloon instead of another Scout logo. I knew my decision would have to come fast……..Scouting and Coca Cola are compatible……..if I don’t accept this compromise the balloon may not get built……..so I accepted on the spot. Hank wrote me a check for $9000 which was the estimated cost of half the balloon. I had decided that I wanted Raven to build the balloon because I liked their basket better…….it had more room. The next week I sent the Raven company $13,000 as the deposit to start construction of the balloon. The final cost of the first Boy Scout Balloon, that we decided to name “Trustworthy” after the first Scout Law, turned out to be $24,000. The balance of $11,000 came, after some discussion and the eventual enthusiastic concurrence of my lovely wife, Gabriella, from our own pockets to support scouting and to have an exciting family activity with our three scout sons and two infant daughters.
Trustworthy arrived in Monroe in the first week of January 1984. We ordered it through Randy Broadhead in Dallas. I wanted to learn the instruments and equipment of the Raven balloons so I went to Dallas for a ride with one of the Raven pilots, Portis Wooley. It was Portis who told me “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air, wishing you were on the ground”. That was a thought I carry with me today and it has kept me out of trouble many times……..I should have learned that principal of flying before my first solo flight in Monroe.
Within a few days after delivery of Trustworthy in Monroe, I received a phone call from Rob Schantz in Jacksonville, Florida. He said he’d learned I had a new Boy Scout Balloon and wondered if I would like to fly it in the Jacksonville Balloon Race which was held annually for the benefit of Scouting in the local area. He said this was important because he knew of no other “Scout” balloon. Even though I’d never flown the balloon and couldn’t make plans that quickly to go to the race, Rob convinced me to ship the envelope to him in Jacksonville for him to fly in this event to support Scouting. He agreed to take many pictures and send them to me. What he didn’t tell me was that the whole event was sponsored by Pepsi and what I neglected to tell him was that the other side of the balloon bore a humongous Coca Cola logo. As you might imagine, when the Boy Scout balloon launched at the beginning of the “hare and hound” race the Coca Cola side lit up the sky like a bad dream for the Pepsi people. Comments like “What the hell is that?” were the mildest reported at this Boy Scout event. Eventually there was some good-natured chuckling about it but they didn’t invite me to the race the next year. I do know that Hank Biedenharn got a big grin on his face when I told him about it.