It was 8 a.m. on the first day of the year 1984. I was a young guy outside a hangar in Stow, Massachusetts, hooked into a 151-foot-tall tower of helium balloons that I called “Aprealis.” The name came from the words appreciation and reality. (Yeah, I know … pretty corny, huh?) I was planning to ride the balloons to Boston about 23 miles away and jump into Boston Common. It would be a historic skydive. Since I was fan of George Orwell and his book “1984,” I wanted to make the jump on the first day of the year to thank him for the warning.
“Okay, cut the rope.” I said to Bobby Goldman.
“I don’t have a knife, he replied.
I had brought five knives with me to be safe. I had given one to Jon Hall, one to Bruce Therrien to adjust my altimeter mount, one to Dean Antonakes to cut the excess balloon strings and one to who knows. I gave Bobby my last one. When he just touched the edge of the main hookup line (3,000-pound test), it broke! The rope—my final anchor line—was too weak. It was my only mistake so far.
I was a puppet. I thundered up. I could hear the air.
“What the heck happened?” I thought to myself.
It was a feeling I’d never had before. I’d taken off in an airplane and helicopter, and I’d floated up in a hot-air balloon, but I’d never had this feeling and probably never would again. I felt like I was being dragged by a cargo airplane. I could feel acceleration. I was going up … and fast. And the $8.50 balloons were pissed off at each other, banging around like a bag of basketballs.
Based on video shot from the ground, I figured that we (the balloons and I) went through 1,000 feet in nine seconds and to a jumpable 2,000 feet in 20 seconds. And believe me, I was still thundering up in the zero-degree Fahrenheit environment.
The 15-foot anchor line was dangling off the strap on my right thigh. (You can see it in the launch photo.) I knew that this rope would likely entangle with my main canopy on deployment and kill me. I had to disengage from it and, eventually, from the balloon contraption. I didn’t have an altimeter, and I didn’t have a knife. But instead of telling you about the terror of the launch and the panic of deployment, let me tell you about the beautiful time I had in the 35 minutes in between.
It was awesome.
I enjoyed the flight in a very special way. After managing to get rid of the life-threatening dangling rope, I had 20 minutes to look around. It wasn’t noisy. I could hear a plane starting a mile away, a dog barking two miles away. It wasn’t cold. I was overdressed. I was moving with the wind. I could see a plane off to the north, likely starting its long descent over the old Gardner Municipal Airport approach route and Orange Skydiving Center.
As I was flying over the Massachusetts Turnpike toward Boston, I could hear the song “Sweet Baby James” in my mind. (“Now the first of December was covered with snow, and so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston.”) I could see both places. What a unique vista. I estimate I was at about 8,000-9,000 feet. The upper winds (300 degrees at 45 Knots) were doing exactly what they were supposed to do: take me to Boston in an hour. I was on the express.
I noticed a funny thing about 20 minutes into my flight: small sparkles in the clear air as the sun was rising south of Boston. I had a slow bounce and spin happening, and these glittery little suckers were falling down. Then, they were exactly at my altitude. What the heck were they? Beautiful ice crystals glimmering in the morning sun? I made a mental note to ask a weatherman I knew.
Suddenly, the speckles started going up, and they were increasing in speed. It suddenly came to me what they were: They were parts of exploded balloons that were traveling with me. I realized that I was going down and was starting to go down fast! I was descending through the debris field of exploded balloons. It was time to go.
I found a way to disengage from the balloons, but the freefall and the deployment scared the s**t out of me. I figured I released from the cluster at about 2,500 feet. My body position didn’t put me face to earth for about eight seconds, and the deployment of the student parachute I was using was sloooowwwww!
After a turn to avoid a horse farm and another to avoid an attacking guard dog, I made a stand-up landing in a big side yard in Wayland, Massachusetts, about 12 miles from my launch point. I packed up and started hiking east, toward the sun, and got some funny looks along the journey. There were no cell phones in 1984, but I was able to find a convenience store where there were payphones so I could call for a ride home.
A little blurb about the jump hit newspapers around the world as a human-interest story in early January. (UPI and AP both picked it up.) Some papers even had a picture of the launch. It hit the New England papers again in July after the Federal Aviation Administration fined me $4,000. Famous parachuting publisher Dan Poynter called me an aviation pioneer, as my jump was the first from a cluster of balloons.
Recently, I received a cancer diagnosis. Seems like I won’t live forever, so I wanted to tell this story. It was my greatest adventure!
More photos and videos of the jump are available online at 57balloons.com and on YouTube.
Kevin Walsh | D-7905 and Former Northeast Regional Director