This essay I originally wrote for my friend Dave Peterman’s website. Growing up in a place like Missoula Montana is a difficult thing for someone with a restless curiosity and imagination. I simply was not content with the conventional and the given. I wanted to know things and the more exotic the better. I would give my left nut to have had the Internet as a child. But even without the wonderful Internet we were still able to learn and create novel things of value. I hope you enjoy the following heartwarming story:
David Peterman and I created a mini UFO “flap” in the late 70’s by launching numerous hot air balloons in Missoula Montana. It all started because of typical teenage restlessness and an issue of Life magazine from the 60’s. My mother was always a fan of various “paranormal” topics like UFO’s and Bigfoot. There were usually issues of Fate magazine around our house and I distinctly remember being exposed to the mind blowing concepts in her copy of John Keel’s book Strange Creatures From Time and Space. In our basement was an issue of Life (or perhaps Look) magazine from the late 60’s that my mother had saved because of its cover story on UFO’s. I enjoyed looking at the issue because of the lurid photographs of what were claimed to be UFO’s. But something else caught my eye even more; a sidebar photo essay about hoaxes that featured what looked like university students sending hot air balloons aloft using dry cleaner bags and birthday candles. I remember thinking this was intrinsically cool regardless of trying to hoax a UFO sighting. Not being a particularly secretive kid I shared this notion with David Peterman. By this time we were both students at Hellgate High school in Missoula. He seemed to share my belief that this would be a cool thing to try.
This being 1976 or so we obviously could not just “Google” up exact instructions on how to build one or bounce around ideas on some obtuse Usenet forum. We had to figure it all out for ourselves. All we had to go by were the one or two photos in this old magazine. It looked simple enough; just make a crosspiece frame of balsa wood, attach about 20 birthday candles, attach this to the bottom opening of a dry cleaner bag which has had its top hole sealed, light the candles, and send aloft. Alas, our first attempts were failures and we became frustrated. The most basic problem seemed to be all the little flames from all the little candles. If a candle was too close to the side of the bag it would melt a hole in the plastic. But having to bunch the candles near the center of the cross would cause the flames to join together and become uncontrollably big. This would result in candles rapidly burning down, dripping paraffin, and starting the balsa wood frame on fire. Many of our early attempts resulted in a bag just barely aloft with a burning glob of paraffin, balsa wood, and polyethylene bag hanging down. Now this was not all bad, as more or less any sort of fire deeply appealed to me at the time. Sometimes the melting polyethylene bag would form long burning streamers which would produce a peculiar “zipping” sound as the melting plastic blobs fell from the sky. We called these “screaming me-me’s”. I had learned of “screaming me-me’s” from either Roald Sonju or John Turman. John and I once spent an enjoyable summer afternoon melting plastic Hot Wheels track onto an ant hill.
Despite the consolation of burning plastic Dave and I were deeply frustrated. Sometimes the greatest frustrations come from being unable to do things that seem completely simple. To us, getting this simple balloon aloft seemed like it should be easy. Surely the good people at Life magazine would not hoax the photograph; those people in the photo must have been able to launch their balloon. Furthermore we had both heard of dry cleaner bag UFO’s independently of the magazine; why couldn’t we make ours fly?
We pondered the simple physics of the equation. Either we needed a greater volume of hot air (more lift) or less mass carried aloft or both. We were also running out of dry cleaner bags. One day out of the blue Dave announces a breakthrough; he figured out how to weld plastic film with a clothes iron! He placed two plastic sheets between newspapers and set the iron on “wool”. He would iron a simple seam an inch or so wide, let it cool, test the seam for integrity, and then trim any excess plastic. This proved to be the most important advance in our quest to get a balloon aloft because we could now create a much bigger bag than the small dry cleaner bags. We could also tailor the bag to any shape we wanted. Dave and I had endless debates as to what might be the exact best shape but we both seemed to agree that a more spherical shape was better than the cylindrical form of the dry cleaner bag.
We also discovered that we could get thinner plastic than used in dry cleaner bags by using drop cloths. Most drop cloths have their thickness listed on the package in “mils” (thousandths of an inch) and we naturally got the thinnest we could find. By making our own bags we felt like we had become the Wright Brothers of hot air balloons, also because Dave was from Ohio!
At this point in our experiments our parents began to notice. Gigantic mounds of drop cloth plastic on the ironing board are hard to miss. Dave and I were both honest with our parents as to what we were up to, with a twist; we claimed we always tethered our balloons and so it was really just as safe as flying a kite. We were too, in the beginning, as Dave and I both knew deep down that these things were still too hazardous to fly. As our designs got better we could not resist and we let them fly freely, with spectacular results.
The next part of the equation to solve was the heat issue. It simply took too much fuel to heat the air in the bag to the point where it would become lighter than air. The simple and obvious solution was to pre-heat the air in the bag until it would float then light the candles at the last minute. This would guarantee maximum time aloft. We fabricated simple torches out of coat hanger wire and cloth rags. We tried to be safety conscious by using cooking oil to keep the “pre-heater” torch burning instead of something more flammable. We would leave white gasoline to other, more serious, pyromaniacs.
Part of our success was the weather. We quickly found that even the slightest breeze would interfere with a launch. A breeze would tend to tip the inflating bag over and the flame from the torch would melt the side of the bag near the opening. We found that ballooning seemed to work best in the winter. Many of Missoula’s winter evenings had dead still air and this worked well. We also rationalized that a fire would be much less likely to start in a snow covered environment. The real fire danger from these craft was if the balloon was blown sideways early in the launch and failed to gain enough altitude. At this point it might catch on a rooftop or a tall tree. The idea was to get the balloon to a high enough altitude so that when the inevitable candle-balsa wood fire started it would burn itself out by the time the whole balloon floated back down to earth.
While I cannot in good moral conscience claim that these hot air balloons are safe I can state that Dave and I never even came close to having any sort of fire come down on someone or some thing . We always launched from the middle of a dry concrete wading pool in Bonner Park across from Dave’s house. Our early mishaps all happened over a large concrete expanse and in the middle of Montana winters with snow on the ground.
Our first success blew our minds. The balloon floated vertically much higher than we expected, and with no sound. We did it! After all that futzing and false starts, we did it! One of the most interesting aspects of all this was how the balloon looked at altitude; the fire obviously provided an orange glow but the ghostly thin plastic diffused the glow in a most ethereal way. The orange light from the fire changed from being a point source on the ground to being a diffuse glow at altitude. The movement of the balloon was interesting too; one would expect perfectly smooth drifting motion but our balloons made surprisingly rapid turns and readjustments. Even after the fire went out the bag continued to contrast with the black or overcast background of the sky. I decided it reminded me of “ectoplasm”. I was a huge fan of Houdini, and I had read how Houdini exposed fraudulent mediums of his time who claimed to produce this ethereal substance from their bodies during séances. Dave and I would follow the path of the balloons from underneath on the ground. We always rationalized that we were going to recover the bag but really we were just running along from the excitement of following it. As it would start its slow decent I would start screaming “Its ectoplasmic life!” This quickly wore on Dave and anyone else around me.
Much as I would like to brag about how high our balloons got I really don’t know what altitude they reached. At this point in our researches the balloons would stay aloft perhaps 5 to 10 minutes before all the candles burned out. I would feel safe in saying they got perhaps several hundred feet into the air.
Despite our initial success we felt the birthday candles left something to be desired. It was always a pain to light 20 little candles, especially in the cramped confines of the bottom of a balloon. Many times one or more candles would get blown out, especially at the very beginning of the launch which was the most unstable part of the flight. It was also hard to tape the crossbar frame to the bag exactly parallel with the ground, because it was always hard to tell what shape the balloon would have when inflated. This would sometimes lead to candle flames on the high side of the frame getting too close to the bag and melting holes, which usually proved disastrous.
It was also dawning on Dave and me that the whole balsa wood frame idea was bogus, as balsa wood was much too flammable. I decided that a single heat source would work much better and I set out to devise a better setup. My inspiration came from the pre-heater torch. But just wrapping rags soaked in cooking oil would not be efficient; too much “wick” and too little fuel. The first solution I came up with worked remarkably well and we stuck with it. I obtained from the local Army Navy surplus store a bunch of hexamine fuel heating tablets. They came in an olive drab cardboard tube slightly bigger than a roll of Lifesavers. Each tablet was about the diameter of a quarter and about 1cm thick. They were used by soldiers to heat tiny field stoves. I believe this technology is no longer being used by the military as MRE’s use chemical heaters. But hexamine tablets were cutting edge tech back in 1977…
I decided a good “wick” for these solid tablets would be Handi-wipes. By pyro instinct I must have hit upon a good solution as the Handi-wipe material would not decompose during the time it was on fire like cotton fabric would. I replaced the flimsy and flammable balsa wood with rigid piano wire. I had come to be familiar with piano wire because of my interest in Houdini and lock picking; Piano wire makes great lock picks! The wire we used came in rods which we purchased at the hobby store, not at the music store. Were I ever to do this all again today I would probably use aluminium sheet and bend it into an “L” or “U” shape or perhaps just use aluminium TIG welding rod. To secure the two piano wires together at their junction and to secure the Handi-wipe material to the hexamine I used very fine copper wire I had purloined from an old electric clock motor. Heck, my parents would never miss that old clock… Remember, this is back in the day when people actually plugged clocks into the wall outlet and their little motors ground away the hours.
Once the cross bar was lashed into an “X” shape one fuel tablet would go above the crossbar and one below. I would wrap the tablets with strips of Handi-wipe about 1” wide and secure the whole thing with more thin copper wire. Part of the beauty of these fuel tablets is that they did not melt like candle wax, they sublimed i.e. they went from a solid to a gas without going through a liquid phase. This meant that the “fuel cell” would not drip burning liquid.
With this step our ballooning entered a new phase. Not only did our balloons work every time the whole matter of futzing with multiple flames during lift-off was gone. Assuming there was no wind we would simply pre-heat the bag with our torch until it floated, then touch off the “fuel cell” and off it went. The fuel cell would never blow out like candles would and it could never burn down to balsa wood and start it on fire. Most spectacularly though, THESE BALLOONS WOULD STAY ALOFT 3 TO 4 TIMES LONGER! Now we felt we had something truly amazing on our hands! We commonly had balloons stay aloft for 30 to 40 minutes!
One night we were approached by a man I recognized as the father of a kid I had known from grade school. He must have seen our launch or saw us watching our balloon aloft and he asked us if we had launched a balloon the previous Thursday. Dave and I were the cannot-tell-a-lie kind of kids and we sheepishly confessed that yes, we had. Did we burn down his house? No, as a matter of fact he saw our balloon, assumed it was a real UFO, and decided that it was so amazing that he had to call the Seattle UFO reporting center! By this time in our ballooning career Dave & I looked upon our exploits more as a tech game, like flying exotic kites or model airplanes rather than “hoaxing” UFO’s. But it was good to see that the UFO angle still worked!
One of the final “tweaks” that Dave and I endlessly futzed over was what we came to call a “wind skirt”. We found that even small sideways drafts would push the flame on the fuel cell sideways. This reduced the amount of heat it produced and could potentially melt a hole in the side of the bag near the flame. We would sometimes add a small cylindrical “skirt” made of the same drop cloth plastic that hung beneath the piano wire crossbar. This indeed seemed to help stabilize the flame but also made it more inconvenient to preheat the bag due to additional plastic that had to be carefully held aside. It also added more weight. As with the shape of the bag, Dave and & I spent a large amount of teenage energy discussing the optimum size and shape of the “wind skirt” and whether or not it was really necessary at all. In the end we decided it helped and usually kept the skirt on.
One balloon that we did recover after its flight amazed me with what it disclosed; the burned fuel cell had left a very fragile charred mantle that was the burned ash of the Handi-wipe. It was very much like the silk mantle of a white gas lantern that burns down to an extremely fragile ash but still functions as a wick! This impressed me with how lucky I was that I had hit on a good design the very first time!
Like most good things in a young person’s life, eventually they come to an end. Fortunately it ended in a good way; our designs had simply become so good we began to feel that it no longer was a challenge. As Dave & I got older we gravitated to other things, mostly rock music. Even though other kids knew about our activities it never seemed to be something that they wanted to do. No one ever asked to join us or to show them how we did it. Dave and I seemed to be the only ones that found this activity to be impressively cool. Other people’s disinterest in all things weird has always baffled me.
As a coda, my last experience with hot air ballooning was sort of strange and anti-climactic. One winter night I was cross country skiing on the golf course near the University of Montana in Missoula. This was probably 1979 or 1980 and Dave and I had not flown balloons for some time. Up in the black sky I see a glowing orange object moving in a particular way that I was very familiar with. If I had not had direct experience with making hot air balloons I would be telling people to this day that I had seen a genuine UFO that night! But I knew exactly what it was because I had made them and flown them. I was slightly miffed, however, because I figured Dave had made and launched one without me and I always felt it was “our” thing. It usually took at least two people to launch a balloon; one to hold the bag open and one to hold the flaming torch. Perhaps he was sharing our hard won esoteric knowledge with someone else…
When I got back home I asked Dave about it and he told me that no, he did not launch a balloon, nor did he know of anyone else who did. Indeed, someone unknown to me in Missoula had launched a hot air balloon that night, having independently acquired the same esoteric knowledge and skills we did! To you, the other unknown Missoula Montana balloonist of the late 1970’s, I salute you, congratulations, live long and prosper!