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The English Channel Flight That Brought Hot-Air Ballooning to the World

This “English Channel Crossing” story features America’s two legendary balloonists, the late Mr. Ed Yost (30 June 1919 – 27 May 2007), who is known as the father of the modern hot-air balloon, and the recently deceased Mr. Don Piccard ( 13 Jan. 1926 – 13 Sep. 2020), another pioneer and a passionate promoter who reactivated the sport of ballooning in the USA and around the world.  Both pioneers were courageous aviators and significant contributors to scientific and recreational ballooning.
Writer Sitara Maruf was fortunate to have some great conversations with the late Mr. Don Piccard. The following story about their balloon flight over the English Channel is just one of their awe-inspiring feats!
For obvious reasons, this is not a comprehensive or detailed account; however, we have tried to portray the event as accurately as possible. Your feedback is always welcome and deeply appreciated. Thank you.

In April 1963, five Raven Industries’ employees, drove in a trailer from Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. From there, they flew in an Airforce tanker to England. Among them were Ed Yost, father of the modern hot air balloon, and Don Piccard, America’s first civilian gas balloonist to earn a balloon pilot’s license in 1947.

On this mission, the duo would be flying Ed Yost’s newly invented propane-powered hot-air balloon across the English Channel. Their launch site would be the town of Rye—a coastal town built 1,400 years ago and located about two miles away from the English Channel.

Inflating the balloon. Courtesy of the National Balloon Museum.

They stayed at the St. George Hotel in Rye and started work on their balloon aircraft.  After getting all the assemblage, they tested the hot-air balloon at a hangar in Cardington. Yost finally got the clearance. But now they had to wait for the right weather to take off. Dr. Emily Frisby who was on President Eisenhower’s staff and who was the weather forecaster during the Allied invasion of Normandy, was their meteorologist. She started working on their trajectory.

Though the weather is near perfect around the time of the year they had planned for the launch, the winds were blowing in the wrong direction every day, and they had only seven days, as an Airforce tanker was going to pick them up in France on 14th April.

Ed Yost at the controls. Courtesy of the National Balloon Museum
Don Piccard. Courtesy of the National Balloon Museum

Dr. Frisby kept apologizing for the weather, but despite unfavorable winds, Yost decided to take the flight on the 13th. “I said, ‘we are taking our flight today, and I don’t give a damn where we go. I’m going to keep flying till I find a wind current that will take us across the Channel.’ And, you know, it was really something, as I didn’t even know the damn burner to work at very high altitude. We’d never had one, over two- or three-thousand feet,” recalled Yost. He was speaking to an audience at the inauguration of the Channel Exhibit on 20th May 2006, at the National Balloon Museum, in Indianola, Iowa.

Courtesy of the National Balloon Museum

The English Channel, is the narrow arm of the Atlantic Ocean that joins the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The narrowest part of the Channel is the Strait of Dover with 21 miles of sea separating the coast of England from the coast of France.  The Channel has strong tides, especially in the Strait of Dover and  water surface temperatures range from 45 °F (7 °C) in February to 61 °F (16 °C) in September. The weather is extremely variable from October to April–it can be very windy, cloudy, chilly, and wet, with poor visibility.  

Ready for flight. Russ Pohl standing at left. The aviators, Ed Yost seated at left and Don Piccard at right. Courtesy of the National Balloon Museum.

In the darkness, much before dawn, on the 13th, the Raven team of five got busy with launch preparations on a green field in Rye, Sussex.  Yost and Piccard assumed they will have a Westwind that will take them (slightly) Southeast towards France. Their aircraft was a 50-foot white nylon balloon with acrylic coating. To prepare it for take-off, they gathered the top of the balloon and bunched it together like a flour sack with a stout nylon cord and fixed it with an explosive squib. Onlookers were appalled by the contrivance. Among them was Britain’s solitary gas balloonist Anthony Smith, whose face was wrinkled with disbelief and anxiety.

The balloon did not have a top vent, but the top was “sort of a chimney,” said Piccard who had taken some video and photos and narrated for a short film about the flight. For landing, they would have to fire the explosive cap that would open the top of the balloon and deflate it, causing it to stop rapidly. The load tapes in shapes of Y along the lower portion of the balloon carried load from the steel cables to the carriage below, but everything above that was just plain nylon. “There were no load tapes whatsoever,” narrated Piccard.

Lifting off! Courtesy of the National Balloon Museum.

For the bunch of onlookers who had sacrificed enough sleep, there were enough jolts to keep them alert. The burner fired a monstrous six-by-one-foot long and wide flame of assorted colors that was accompanied by an equally monstrous noise. However, the heat output per hour was only two million British Thermal Units (BTUs). When you compare it to today’s hot-air balloon burners that produce 11-20 million BTUs, it gives an idea of the enormous task ahead of them and the courage needed for such a crossing.

To inflate the balloon envelope, they used a small fan above the burner that blows air with the fire into the balloon. At full inflation, the balloon would hold 60,000 cubic feet of heated air.

 If the balloon and burner were crude enough, their seating arrangement was dangerous, even fatal. Four nylon ropes were used to suspend a curved wooden plank—seven feet long and four feet wide, below the burners. For sides, it had only a slim cord around it. “We can hang on to it, if things get real bad,” Yost told Smith who wondered what was going on in Yost’s mind!  The aeronauts sat on this plank, with two 30-gallon propane cylinders, that carried a six-hour fuel supply.   For landing they would have to detach two of the four wires between the board and the balloon and come down somehow…

From this precarious wooden plank, they would be piloting a nylon bag above them by adjusting its altitude to find favorable winds toward France. To adjust the balloon’s altitude, they would adjust the amount of heated air inside it. For this, they would be controlling the heat provided by the burner by turning the tap from full to trickle. Around 7:45 am, getting ready for takeoff, Yost accidentally turned the tap to trickle. The flame vanished. “Anyone got a match?” asked Piccard. Many did not realize that he was just joking and, despite their concerns, pushed their matchboxes and lighters, in an effort to show last-minute kindness, or was it helplessness?

In Flight.Courtesy of the National Balloon Museum.

Then, quite suddenly, they started rising. Amid cheers and continuous waves from onlookers and colleagues, they took off in the pure white Raven balloon. The aeronauts waved back a few times. The climb was very smooth, except that they were headed in the opposite direction—toward London instead of Paris. The big problem was finding that wind current that would take them to France. Whether they would go ahead over the Channel and toward France or would have to retreat to England would depend if they made it in line with Dungeness point. If not, they would have to come down quickly and catch the South wind to take them back to England.

“I had to go over 13,500 feet in that damn thing. And I finally found one [wind current] that was kind of slanted, blowing right across the North Sea,” recalled Yost. They were not carrying any supplemental oxygen, so it’s likely that they did not stay around at 13,000-foot altitude for a longer time.

View of Rye, England. Courtesy of the National Balloon Museum.

They could only see clouds over France. Their first view of France was Cape Gris-Nez, but the wind threatened to blow them to Belgium and the North Sea. The clouds below were at two- and three-thousand feet. As their balloon started coming toward the coastline of France, they saw that the clouds below were moving toward the sea.  Looking closely and watching the edge of the cloud’s shadows move across the street, Piccard estimated it was about a 30-mile-an-hour wind right back to sea. For a safe landing, they stayed up at high altitude to get far enough inland so that they could come down rapidly without getting blown out to sea.  

Now they flew over the open countryside of France and were preparing to get down.  The balloon was spinning as it turned. They dropped toilet paper to check the direction of wind below, and it fell rapidly. The balloon’s shadow chased them across the French countryside.

France in the distance. Courtesy of the National Balloon Museum.

According to Don Piccard they were going down about 66 feet or more per second. In an interview to Glen Terry for Hudson/North Hudson Community Access TV, Piccard said, “We knew, we had to come down fast, get through that wind; otherwise, we’d be back in the channel. So, we made a rapid descent, and the banners on the side of the balloon lifted up and tore the fabric; probably the closest I ever came to being killed in my life.”

As they were coming down, Yost hollered, “What are those poles?” “Those are power lines,” Piccard replied. “Hit the burner,” yelled Yost. “There are no wires; they are brand new holes,” assured Piccard. “When we finally worked our way about eight miles from the coast, we had a wild ride going down,” said Yost. After flying for three hours and 17 minutes and covering 65 miles, they landed in a marshy looking flat field, in Gravelines, near Dunkirk.

Approaching shores of France. Only a rope surrounded their wooden plank. All photos courtesy of the National Balloon Museum and Becky Wigeland

On the flight, they were carrying an instrument that would indicate when the balloon was in danger of overheating and catching fire, but what was the alternate option in the event that something like that did happen? They were not even wearing parachutes. “We couldn’t spare the weight,” Don Piccard told the The New York Times after the flight, but “it was a perfect trip.”

For the first time, the Channel had been crossed in a balloon that used hot air instead of gas.

When they landed, the mail carrier came, and they shared 200 envelopes. Legendary French balloonist Charles Dollfus was also at the scene. Then the French police arrived. “They rounded us all up and kept us in the police car and took us down to the police station and went through all the papers over and over and over. We just sat there for 45 minutes and could not understand what they were talking about,” said Yost. Finally, they asked them to get in the car again and drove them to a beautiful building, where Dollfus hosted a sumptuous banquet.

The courageous aeronauts, Yost, 43, and Piccard, 37, hit the headlines in newspapers around the world. Their feat led to a great deal of interest in the new sport of hot-air ballooning. Moreover, it demonstrated the reliability, range, and airworthiness of the modern hot-air balloon and was instrumental in popularizing air ballooning as a global and commercial sport.

“That flight was done for a purpose,” said Ed Yost. “It was a military operation, kind of…” Yost said that he had designed the balloon and his sponsor wanted some publicity. They said, “‘Take off at Dover (England).’ But I wanted to go some distance.” In an article by Peter Stekel, “50 Years of Ballooning Memories,” for the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, Piccard said that they were designated “Majors” in the Wisconsin National Guard with uniforms, I.D. cards; and everything. “All in the national interest, of course.”

Piccard told Hudson/North Hudson Community Access TV, that crossing the English Channel is a rite of passage. “Whenever something is ready to fly, to prove itself, it crosses the English Channel, whether it’s a boat or a balloon or an airplane.”

Whereas Piccard and Yost had achieved the feat in 1963 using a hot-air balloon, a pair of eighteenth-century balloonists were the first aviators to fly over the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon. On 7th January 1785, a French balloonist, Jean Pierre Blanchard and his American copilot, John Jefferies, successfully crossed the English Channel using a hydrogen balloon, achieving the first milestone in long-distance ballooning and a significant benchmark in ballooning history. Their flight from England to France had resulted in great drama not just with nature’s elements but also between the two aeronauts who had barely survived the Channel crossing and each other!

Six months later, the next attempt by the first aerial pilot and brilliant scientist, Pilatre de Rozier and his companion Pierre Roman on 15th June 1785, resulted in the first aerial accident and casualties. Both were killed while crossing the channel in a hybrid combination of a hydrogen and hot-air balloon that exploded half an hour after takeoff. They also were attempting the crossing in the opposite direction, from France to England, which was a bigger challenge due to the unfavorable winds and currents.

The modern hot-air balloon used by Yost and Piccard to fly across the English Channel was later named ‘Channel Champ” by Piccard, not for the success at the English Channel crossing, but for a flight across the Catalina Channel in California later.  A historic aircraft, the Channel Champ is an exhibit at the National Balloon Museum, after it was almost lost to history.

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