Balloon Records: Waste of Helium?


I think most of us follow aviation record attempts with interest varying from not at all to enough dedication to bookmark the inevitable website tracking the breathless progress across the heavens. It has always been thus. I suspect a lot of people opening newspapers on May 21, 1927, wondered why the editors were bannering the fact that some lunatic had flown the Atlantic in an airplane. What’s the point?

This is the context in which to view the weekend’s record helium balloon flight from Japan to near the coast of Mexico, a new distance record. We ran the story in our news columns because it is an aviation event, it’s interesting and other outlets will have it-all the things that make a news story a news story. Personally, I might or might not have followed it otherwise.

What’s more interesting than the flight itself is that such attempts now have their own means of reaching audiences that essentially self-select-websites, social media, live streaming. Conventional news coverage is thus superfluous, although the balloon story got play on the network news shows Saturday evening by dint of good timing and a slow news day.

Circling back, what’s the point? Just as soon as I find myself saying this one was a waste of helium, I realize that it’s the nature of man to undertake such things, for the sake of exploration, to do the higher, faster, farther thing and, hell, just for the spectacle. To say it has to have some higher commercial purpose or scientific import is to define the word buzzkill.

For the purposes of my own taxonomy and sanity, I sort records into three groups: Wow, kinda cool and ho-hum. The balloon record I rank as kinda cool. As we saw when Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwellclimbed El Cap’s Dawn Wall last month, technology has evolved to the point of involving the audience closer and closer to real time. So we had live reports from the balloon flight and lots of photos and video. If you can’t embark on such a flight yourself-and face it, most of us can’t–you can at least participate vicariously and appreciate the technology and skill required to complete such a flight and bring it right to your desktop or flat screen in the den. Those two balloon pilots–Troy Bradley and Leonid Tiukhtyaev–are, after a fashion, sportsmen at the top of their game, like champion bass fishermen or F1 drivers. Looking over their shoulders is engaging, at the least.

Achievements in aviation have always occupied and still occupy a spectrum, from the exciting and incremental to the entertaining to the mundane, but nonetheless interesting. They always return some new bit of knowledge, technology or technique. So yeah, by my lights, it was worth the helium.

One small thing, though. The Coast Guard’s motto is semper paratus-always prepared. I would like to think we could say the same of some of the people who embark upon the adventures described above, but we know it not to be true. The balloonists appeared to have thought of everything, but they still could have required a mid-ocean rescue.

It’s the Coasties’ job to fish people out of the drink for whom things have gone wrong and it doesn’t matter if that’s at their own hand or the vagaries of nature. Or if they’re engaged in merchant shipping or pleasure yachting. And there’s real risk in doing those rescue jobs, not to mention expense. That occurred to me when we were reporting on those two fuel exhaustion ditchings last Sunday. Can we fairly say the pilots were as prepared to make the flight as the USCG was to rescue them? Semper quaestio.

What Do You Mean It Won’t Open?

Have you seen that funny Geico spot where the guy is pulling on the door and the Salt-N-Pepa girls show up to urge him to push it? I couldn’t help but think of that when the skipper of Delta 1651 got locked out the cockpit by a balky door and had to sit in the back during the arrival and landing in Las Vegas. And I really thought that when the cause of the lock-out was given as a piece of string. String?

And I can think of a joke that applies, too. Years ago when the Boeing 727 was still mainstream in the airline fleet, a flight was inbound to JFK when the captain keeled over dead; heart attack. The engineer, visibly shaken, asked the first officer: “Now what are we going to do?” Without missing a beat, the FO said, “The first thing we’re gonna do is get that son of a bitch out of my seat!”

Har-har. But wouldn’t the FO actually have to switch seats to get at the MD-90’s tiller? If so, interesting upgrade path.

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