Hot air balloon: Australia’s first modern flight

By James McCormack 9 December 2014
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James McCormack embarks on a personal crusade to better understand his father who, 50 years ago, completed Australia’s first modern hot-air balloon flight.

On 4 July 1964, a group of young engineering students and recent graduates gathered around a shapeless object in a paddock near Parkes, in central-western New South Wales. They looked like members of an esoteric sect, clad identically in simple white overalls and performing curious rituals, the function of which few onlookers could have guessed.

At the centre of their attention was 150sq.m of Mylar film. It was just one-fiftieth of a millimetre thick. During the days to come, the Mylar’s ­aluminium coating would shimmer silver, ­mirroring bright cobalt skies and brown, hard-baked fields. On these days, there would be no spectators and their strange activities would go unwatched.

The fourth of July, however, was different. Thousands of onlookers had gathered, braving midwinter’s grasping dawn chill, because the young engineers were attempting the country’s first manned balloon flight in nearly half a century. Unlike previous balloons, Archimedes, as they had named their craft, was equipped with an onboard burner. This was Australia’s first modern hot-air balloon and tiny by today’s standards.

Balloons now average a volume of 2500cu.m; ­Archimedes was one-fifth that size. Nor was there was a passenger basket. There was just an open platform, large enough to carry one gas cylinder, a single passenger and no more.

The group had built Archimedes themselves. In a cafeteria at The University of Sydney, they had cut out 28 sections of Mylar (a form of plastic polymer officially known as polyethylene terephthalate) and taped them together to form the envelope. When Archimedes was complete, they performed an unmanned trial on a football field in Sydney, with the balloon tethered by ropes. Their next step was to remove its constraints – they wanted Archimedes to fly free. So they headed to Parkes, where they could run their trials outside restricted airspace.

On the day of the attempt, a light breeze blew. The students struggled to steady the inflating balloon. Eventually they were ready for take-off. The president of their ballooning club, the Aerostat Society, stood on the platform. His added weight was too much for the tiny, rudimentary burner, which lacked the power to sufficiently heat the air within ­Archimedes for lift-off. But it was close. All they needed was to lighten the load. Then the pilot removed his parachute and Archimedes began to float. Within minutes, it was half a kilometre up. By the time it landed, a quarter of an hour later, it had travelled 5km. History had been made.

However, no-one had considered the dynamics of the landing. When Archimedes touched down, for an instant the weight of the pilot, the platform, the burner and the gas bottle were no longer supported by the balloon, but by the ground. Relieved of this encumbrance, Archimedes shot skywards. The pilot lost his footing and was left dangling from the platform some 30m in the air, before the balloon descended again. When spectators arrived, they were relieved to find him uninjured.

Eleven years later, he would not be so lucky. In another Australian ballooning first, he would die in an accident, closing a pioneering chapter of the sport. For me, too, just 8 years old at the time, the world of ballooning ended. That was because the pilot, Terry McCormack, was my father, and for the next 35 years I didn’t think about hot-air ballooning at all.

Related: On this day: first crossing of Australia by hot air balloon

Learning more about hot air ballooning

For years I had known of a box my mother kept. It smelt musty and, although I’d never rummaged through it, I knew roughly its contents: yellowed newspaper clippings; black-and-white photos; hand-drawn designs on paper browned at the edges; and the odd silverfish, squished and dried between promotional brochures.

I’d never closely examined this evidence of my father’s ­ballooning endeavours, nor spoken with any of his friends from those times. I’d never even really asked anyone about him or what he was like. However, because several of Dad’s friends had recently died, in 2012 I decided that if I was ever going to learn more about him, or the contents of that box, now was the time to start.

As a form of transport, ballooning predates cars, bicycles, and even steam locomotives. It seems at odds with the fast pace of modern life. A flight in a balloon is a languid affair, floating through the skies, drifting over the landscape in slow, meandering lines. Yet nostalgia was not what attracted the Aerostat Society members to ballooning. Precisely the opposite; it was innovation, research, adventure. And, at least according to one clipping I found in the box, humour, because it all began with an idea for a stunt.

In July 1962, as is the wont of students, Dad and others gathered at The University of Sydney’s St John’s College devising mischief. Dad suggested a party, one that couldn’t be stopped. “Imagine it,” he said. “The Poms are playing at the SCG. You float over in a balloon, singing and dancing at 100ft [30m] and nobody can get you. The cops are bristling with rage and frustration, the fire brigade is called in with ladders and the air force with rockets.”

Stan Grincevicius, who later became my godfather, was there. “It was just students sitting around in – pardon the French – a bullshit session, everyone going off on tangents with big ideas. But every once in a while somebody grabs the idea and runs with it. In this case, it was Terry,” Stan says.

I hadn’t seen Stan since my father’s funeral. But he was possibly my father’s closest friend, so I travelled to Melbourne to pay him a visit. He showed me hundreds upon hundreds of pages Dad had sent him: drawings and sketches; designs and ­costings; calculations of payloads, lift factors, gas densities, vapour ­pressures, BTUs (British thermal units), spring-loadings, fuel consumption, drag coefficients and temperature differentials. Done in the pre-computer, pre-calculator age, every equation was handwritten – scrawled lines of calculus, of derivatives and integrals, of sines and cosines.

“He was an engineer,” Stan says. “He liked working things out and researching. And he was very, very intelligent. For every three hours [of study] we had to put in, he only had to put in one.”

The joy of research seemed to be at the project’s heart. This didn’t surprise me; the original Aerostats were, essentially, all math and science geeks. There was Dad and his brother Laurie, brothers Peter and Brian McGee, Stan, Zenon Kocuimbas, Mopsy Mauragis and Terry Golding. And they had to start from scratch.

There were no books for guidance, no hobbyist magazines, and no ready flow of information to Australia about international ballooning developments. American Ed Yost had made the first modern hot-air balloon flight just a few years earlier; no-one in England would do so for years.

“It was really first principles,” Terry Golding says. “There were no do-it-yourself manuals or texts to follow at all. There was a piece of paper and a Biro.”

By all accounts, Dad drove the research. “It was absolutely [his] show,” Terry says. “Without him, this thing wouldn’t have got off first base. It was his idea, his initiative, his enthusiasm, his research. It was his baby. And the remaining members of the Aerostat Society, including myself, were just there for the ride.”

Building the Archimedes

The significance of this first flight of Archimedes in July 1964 still surprises me. Newspapers ran it on front pages and it was covered on television. Buoyed by this, within 12 months the society had embarked on a bigger project: building the largest balloon in the world. Reaching 75ft (23m) in height and 60ft in diameter, it would hold six times the volume of Archimedes. The goal was to fly it across Australia.

But the equipment they needed was expensive and much of their energy was spent chasing sponsorship. “It was always a hard sell, trying to get support,” Stan says. “There was little to offer in terms of publicity.”

Yet receive they did. Ropes. Propane gas. Toyota sponsored them with a truck. Sydney’s now-defunct Daily Mirror newspaper contributed $1000. Australian sewing machine supplier Capron Carter donated an industrial sewing machine and arranged a seamstress to sew together the balloon. An electric blanket company made two blanket suits to protect the balloonists from the cold at altitude. And then there was the sponsorship from Teijin.

“That was big,” Stan says. “Big. Big. Big.” Dad had become convinced that, for a larger balloon, a fabric that resisted rips was needed. His research led him to Teijin, a Japanese company that produced Terylene, known today as Dacron. Dad sent a request to Teijin, asking for a donation of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Terylene. In gratitude for the gift of the fabric, the Aerostats named the world’s biggest balloon after the company.

By October 1965, Teijin was ready. They decided to test it with a tethered flight at St John’s Oval in the grounds of The University of Sydney. The inflation progressed smoothly, but Teijin was so big that Terry Golding was genuinely worried it might lift the truck to which it was secured.

Dad and Peter McGee ascended first, followed by Terry. On the descent, with Teijin still floating 5m in the air, a bystander pulled on one of the ropes. (The rope led to an innovation they were trialling: a zipper running the balloon’s length — in essence splitting it open — to allow rapid deflation.) Teijin collapsed instantly. It crashed down on Dad and broke his leg, and Terry Golding’s clothes were set on fire when molten fabric fell on him.

Terry’s burns, thankfully, were minor, requiring just a single night in hospital, but sponsors became wary and the balloon was badly damaged. Yet Terry doesn’t believe the incident dampened Dad’s enthusiasm, even if he did soon relinquish the idea of flying across Australia.

“I think he realised it was a much more ambitious program than he’d originally envisaged,” Terry says. “It would have required massive resources that he simply didn’t have access to.”

Other mishaps followed. In July 1966 (after a successful flight where my mother Cherry became Australia’s first modern-day female hot-air balloonist) Dad and some others flew Teijin at Canowindra, a sleepy central-western NSW town, now known as the balloon capital of Australia. They were testing a new deflation system when a 270kg rope snapped, freeing the unmanned craft. Teijin floated away and radiant heat from the sun provided the balloon with enough warmth to stay afloat. It was last seen 140km to the south-east, near Crookwell.

With mounting debts and no balloon, the Aerostat ­Society seemed doomed. Two months later, though, a pilot spotted Teijin in thick bushland and the society recovered it. But a year later, Teijin’s envelope ripped apart mid-flight – perhaps because ­ultraviolet rays had weakened its fabric during all those months it lay in the bush. Stan and fellow pilot Don Joergens were forced to make emergency jumps, the first time either had parachuted.

It seemed to me the Aerostats lurched from near disaster to near disaster. But that was perhaps unfair, because not only were there many successful flights, it was also quite clearly a period of trial and error. “Uninformed is a good word to use,” says Phil Kavanagh, who joined the society in 1968 and went on to found Australia’s only commercial balloon manufacturing company, which he manages to this day. “We just didn’t have a clue. We were really lucky to survive,” he says. “Especially with the things we flew in.”

Related: Floating first

The last of Terry McCormack

But to my father, these small mishaps meant little. His optimism was, it seemed, irrepressible. It was also, however, his undoing. That, and sheer rotten luck.

Until this year, when I chatted with Michael Small, who witnessed Dad’s fatal flight, I had never spoken to anyone – not even my mother – about the circumstances of his death. I had never read the newspaper accounts, nor the Australian Department of Transport’s accident report.

In November 1975, Dad went to Wagga Wagga, 160km west of Canberra, to fly with Michael and Tony Hayes. It was a warm day and Michael says the morning flight with Dad in the James Cook was memorable.

“It was the highest I’d ever flown in a balloon. We got up to 10,000ft [3048m]. I was wondering if that was [Mt] Kosciuszko I could see.”

Tony then swapped with Michael and he and Dad took off at 12.20pm Phil Kavanagh was upset when he heard they’d set out so late. He’d become suspicious of afternoon flights as, once temperatures rise, thermals start popping. This is why ballooning is an early morning activity. Phil even talked about it with Dad.

“But Terry had such huge optimism he thought he could overcome any obstacle,” he says. Yet it was becoming apparent, at least in Phil’s mind, this would not be the case with thermals. “We would just have to learn to avoid them.”

When Dad and Tony departed, Michael and a few others followed by car. “They weren’t flying as high as we had in the morning,” Michael says. “I remember losing sight of the balloon, quite often behind hills. But coming around a corner, [we saw] smoke maybe one or 2km away. We prayed they were okay.”

Newspapers say Dad and Tony were at an altitude of about 100m, and chatting with onlookers below them, when a ­willy-willy moved through. The basket began swinging violently and, in all the movement, the cable leading to the chimney’s release pin was pulled. Chimneys were large vents in balloon envelopes that could be used to rapidly release air upon landing. But the deflations they induced were termed ‘catastrophic’, in that they were irreversible. The James Cook plummeted. Tony jumped, but his parachute had insufficient time to deploy. Dad stayed with the balloon. Neither had a hope of survival.

Hot air ballooning now

If I was to understand the attraction of ballooning for Dad, I had to fly again. It seemed fitting it should be with Phil Kavanagh and that it should be in Canowindra. Not only had Dad been influential in the town becoming Australia’s ­ballooning capital, but also some of my earliest memories are from time spent there with him.

For me, a kid from the city, Canowindra had seemed exotically bushy. I remember the land appeared hard and leached, the gum trees veneered with dust. I remember fields of Paterson’s curse and thistles as high as my chest. I remember learning to negotiate barbed wire to reach paddocks where the balloon had landed.
Returning to Canowindra in November 2012, it seemed virtually nothing had changed. That was not the case, however, with modern balloons.

Dad’s accident cemented in people’s minds the danger of afternoon flights and chimneys were banned. Skirts, too, were added to balloon bases to allow safer ascents in higher winds. Inflation fans are quieter and burners infinitely more powerful. Most importantly, deflation vents can now be opened and closed on demand.

Phil demonstrated the vent in the moments before we ascended. Unlike the swatch-patterned colours of so many modern balloons, Phil’s was almost wholly a single hue; a lustrous teal blue to match the rich depths of the dawn above. Then, with a couple of blasts of the burner, we were off.

The lift was so gentle it could barely be felt, and we rose in near silence over the dawn-kissed fields. The land seemed soft and slow, as if waking drowsily from sleep. Soon we were high enough to no longer hear the calls of livestock or songs of birds. We took in aerial views revealing the patterns of the landscape: the spidery webs of sheep tracks near dams; the rows of vineyards; the angularities of fence lines; the crooked ­haphazardness of creeks; and the contours of gentle hills ringing the valley.

But I preferred those times we dipped low. Nearing ­Canowindra itself, we swung down to the paddocks. Up high I had felt suspended, as if held by a giant crane. Close to the ground, however, where the rough imperfections of the earth itself were apparent, the sense of being air-cushioned, of truly floating, was heightened. And after rising in a graceful arc over the buildings, we dropped again, this time so low the basket brushed the ­whispering heads of wheat.

Nearing touchdown, Phil feathered the vent and we landed with a surprising gentleness. I came away with an overwhelming feeling of calm, but I still couldn’t understand what had compelled Dad to devote his life to ballooning. There were, of course, aspects Dad relished that I couldn’t even begin to appreciate after just one flight, because largely they had little to do with flying.

Terry had hinted at them the day before my flight, when he said that if Dad hadn’t died so young, he could have achieved significant greatness. “He was just that sort of a man,” Terry said. “Your father would never buy a lottery ticket; if he won it, he said, the whole challenge in life would disappear.”

There are very few of us – and I’m not one of them – who don’t want to win the lottery, metaphorically speaking. For those rare few, the very marrow of life lies neither in mere survival nor comfort, but rather in confronting both. I actually believe there is a biological necessity for this. Not just for the pioneers, explorers, adventurers and risk-takers involved, but for us as a species to have such people – they are the ones that move us forward, the ones that achieve significant greatness.

After returning home to Sydney, I discovered my attitude towards my father had shifted. When I began researching his balloon exploits, I believed the respect I had for him was no different from that of most sons towards their fathers – especially sons with dead fathers.

But for years, I have been passing a sign near my apartment quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do not go where the path may lead,” it reads. “Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” It is, of course, a beautiful sentiment. Yet I’ve always considered it unattainably lofty; who have I ever met, I’ve thought, who’s truly had the courage to do so?

I look at the sign now and realise I know a man who did.