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Upcoming FUGO Balloon Exhibit Needs $137,000

Two museums in Michigan have come together to create a hands-on exhibit of the world’s first intercontinental bomb, which is a rare World War II artifact. The exhibit will educate visitors about the history and science of Japanese bomb-carrying balloons, called FUGOs. These scientifically inventive weapons were unleashed by the Japanese military to fly the jet stream 35,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean and drop bombs in the United States in 1945. A part of the exhibit will also highlight the landing of a FUGO in Dorr, Michigan, its subsequent use by Donald Piccard for his historic balloon flight over Minneapolis in 1947, and how the FUGO was tracked and brought back to Dorr — 72 years after it was sighted in the sky by three pre-teen boys.

The comprehensive FUGO exhibit at Air Zoo Museum will explore the military events leading to the FUGO campaign, the science and mechanism of the balloon bombs, jet stream discovery, and aviation with text panels and interactive learning activities.

The exhibit needs $137,000 to materialize and museum officials at the Byron Center Museum have started “The FUGO Campaign” to raise money. “I hope people come forward and donate, so the balloon could be nicely displayed, like it should be, and it does not have to stay in the box,” said Theresa Kiel, a board member with the Byron Center Historical Society.

In May 2017, the FUGO envelope was tracked and brought back to Byron Museum. Last summer, the balloon was taken out from its drum and unfurled in an open field, for the first time in decades. Museum exhibit designer Valerie van Heest was invited to examine it and was delighted to see its intact condition and the fact that it can still hold air. “To be able to see and touch the material paper, after 72 years, and realize that it is in such good condition-it’s just amazing to touch history like that,” said van Heest.

Donald Piccard hands over the Fu-Go balloon to Theresa Kiel on May 25, 2017
“It will be hard to see that balloon leave my driveway,” Don had said earlier. Photo courtesy of Theresa Kiel

The original plan was to have the exhibit at the Byron Center Museum, but the museum does not get enough visitors, nor does it have a space big enough for the comprehensive exhibit that the officials want it to be. “It just wouldn’t do it justice to have it hanging from a ceiling,” Kiel told LTA Flight Magazine. “We want to have a lot of hands-on activities for the kids.”

Air Zoo Museum in Portage, MI, has reserved space for the FUGO exhibit

So, the Byron Center Museum and the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Museum, in Portage, Michigan, have entered a partnership to pool their resources. Being only half an hour away from Dorr, Air Zoo provides a close connection to local history. This aviation museum which has high ceilings and attracts 150,000 visitors per year has reserved 2,000 square feet of space for the exhibit.

When Kiel and van Heest talked with Troy Thrash, president and CEO of the Air Zoo Museum, he showed lot of interest. “Because it’s very rare you hear anything anymore about FUGO balloons,” Thrash told WZZM-13 TV. “Being a flight museum that we are, we want to be a part of helping to tell the story, not only of the balloon that landed in Dorr, but use it to explore the whole FUGO initiative.”

FUGO exhibit layout. Courtesy of BCHS and Air Zoo Museum.
Museum exhibit designer Valerie van Heest is a partner in the firm Lafferty van Heest & Associates

According to van Heest, “The balloon, itself, will take 900 square feet because the balloon is about 33 feet in diameter.” To make it look inflated she plans to use a framework, like that of an umbrella, inside the balloon.  This, she says, is a different approach from what the Smithsonian used in the sixties and seventies. “They built a bladder that they inflated within the FUGO. We don’t want to put any undue stress on the balloon because of its age,” she explains.  At the Smithsonian, however, the FUGO envelope has been in storage since the seventies.

For this comprehensive and interactive FUGO exhibit, probably the only one in the world, once completed, van Heest plans to display the intact FUGO envelope  with a full-size replica of its chandelier as a centerpiece of the exhibit, with text panels and interactive learning activities that will educate people about the world’s first intercontinental bombing campaign, with an unusual weapon—balloons.

Museum officials would like the whole country to learn about the FUGO initiative and the history of the Dorr FUGO balloon. “The immensity of it should draw a lot of people and we have the opportunity to share the story which is lost to time. It’s something we’ve forgotten about, since technology has developed many more sophisticated weapons,” said van Heest.

Air Zoo Museum officials were also happy with van Heest’s schematic designs for the exhibit.

The exhibit will have four interactive kiosks. Kiosk 1 will explore the military events leading to the FUGO campaign: the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941, and America’s retaliation with the “Doolittle Raid” airstrike. One hands-on activity will include making the paper that Japan manufactured to make the balloons.

Kiosk 2 will feature the science and mechanism of the balloon that enabled their thousands of miles journey— 38,000 feet above the Pacific. Visitors will be able to simulate a balloon crossing over the Pacific using an interactive touchscreen.

Don Piccard as a student balloon pilot in 1947 adapted the FUGO envelope for a hot air balloon flight. Photo credit: Minneapolis Daily Times

The kiosk on “Reaching North America” will explore the strange sightings in western states and the difficulties determining the balloons’ origin. Visitors will learn why the US government insisted on media censorship and what happened to the discovered balloons and the bombing apparatus. The interactive will demonstrate the law of gas volume, formulated by Jacques Charles, a brilliant young physicist of the late eighteenth century, who was also the first aeronaut to fly a hydrogen balloon over Paris.

Finally, the kiosk on “War comes to Dorr” will highlight the story of the three pre-teen boys who saw the balloon drift down in a corn field in Dorr, on February 23, 1945, its onward journey in the US, Don Piccard’s famous flight, and how the balloon was tracked and brought back to Dorr, 72 years later.

On February 23, 1945, three pre-teen boys – Larry ‘Buzz’ Bailey (left), Bob Fein (center) and Ken Fein (right) – saw the balloon land with a charred platform. With the help of an adult, they bundled it and carried home in a truck. Courtesy of BCHS/WZZM-13TV

“The Byron Museum will design and develop the exhibit and the Air Zoo will host it and conduct educational programs,” said Kiel. Once the funds are raised, it will take a year to complete the exhibit.

Larry Bailey gets to see the balloon again on May 31, 2017.
Photo courtesy of WZZM-13 TV

The Byron Museum plans to have a scaled down exhibit and it’s likely that the exhibit will be fabricated to travel so that people across the country can see.  While in North America, there are seven exhibits that display partial or complete FUGO chandeliers, no museum has an intact FUGO envelope on display–not even the Japanese, who made 15,000 balloons but launched 9,300 as the media blackout in North America led them to believe that their bombing mission had failed.

To make a donation, please visit www.byroncentermuseum.com

You may also send a check to:  Byron Museum Go FU-GO

Box 20, Byron Center, MI 49315

Related articles from LTA Flight Magazine:

Incredible Journey of a Japanese Balloon Bomb

 A Japanese War Weapon and Don Piccard’s Famous Flight

WZZM-13 TV Stories:


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We are making changes and  apologize for any inconvenience. Thank you for your patience.