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Runaway Balloons

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The afternoon of October 15, 2009 was one of those rare moments when Americans from coast-to-coast were riveted to their television sets by a news story unfolding in real time.  Six year old Falcon Heene was reported to be trapped aboard a helium balloon floating across the Colorado landscape at 7000 feet. The image on the screen was surreal, a strange craft looking like a cross between a Mylar grocery store balloon and a flying saucer, with a small circular structure on the bottom that appeared to be just large enough to house a small child. When the balloon came naturally to earth after a fifty mile flight, however, the boy was not aboard. Had he fallen to his death somewhere along the way? What appeared to be a tragedy in the making came to a happy ending when young Falcon was found hiding in a box where he had hidden to avoid the consequences of having accidently released his father’s experimental balloon. Ultimately, however, matters grew even more complex when local authorities launched an investigation to determine if the entire thing had been a hoax staged by the family.

I was one of very few television viewers who knew that runaway balloons, even runaway balloons with children on board, were big news a century and a half ago. Balloonist Timothy Winchester disappeared in 1855 during an attempt to fly across Lake Erie. Ira Thurston met his end over the same body of water on the afternoon of August 16, 1858 when he was accidently carried aloft by a balloon he was trying to deflate. Even the most experienced aeronauts occasionally fell victim to runaway balloons. Washington Donaldson vanished while attempting to fly across Lake Michigan in 1875. Four years later, seventy-one year old John Wise, who had completed 463 ascents since he first took to the air in 1835, disappeared while attempting the same feat.

Few of those tragedies captured public interest like the accidental aerial voyage of eight year old Martha Ann Harvey and her three year old brother David. The story begins with balloonist Samuel Wilson, who ascended from Centralia, Illinois on the morning of October 23, 1858 and flew twenty miles to a landing in the top of a tree owned by farmer Benjamin Harvey. The farmer and his neighbors assisted Wilson in extricating his balloon, after which Harvey climbed into the basket, hoping to make a tethered ascent.  When he proved too heavy, he placed his three children in the car. The father instructed his oldest daughter to climb out when the balloon still refused to rise, leaving the two youngest children in the basket alone.

Startled to find the balloon rising at last, the inexperienced ground crew lost their grip on the tether line. A dangling grappling hook tore through a rail fence as the craft climbed out of the farmyard. The distraught parents stood helplessly by as Martha’s cries of “Pull me down father!” grew ever fainter. Horsemen immediately set out to alert the countryside, while a party of men and boys tried unsuccessfully to follow the drifting balloon.

The news created a sensation in Centralia. The aeronaut assured everyone who would listen that the balloon would return to earth of its own accord within an hour or two, probably within thirty miles of the take off point. His words were of little comfort, however, as night fell with the children still somewhere aloft.

At 3 o’clock the following morning, Mr. Ignatio Atchison stepped out on his porch to observe Donati’s Comet.  Instead, he saw “an immense spectre rising from the top of a tree twenty yards away.” Approaching closer, he heard a faint voice: “Come here and let us down. We are almost frozen.” The lost had been found.

News of the rescue was announced in area churches that Sunday to “ecstasies of joy.”   The children returned home the next day to be greeted by the discharge of cannon “and a general jubilee.” William Matthews, the local daguerreotype artist, captured an image of the young hero and heroine in their Sunday best. An engraved copy of the photo appeared in the illustrated newspapers of the era, spreading the story of the balloon adventure of the Harvey children across the nation. As in the case of Falcon Heene, all’s well that ends well.

Tom Crouch is Senior Curator for Aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum.

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2 thoughts on “Runaway Balloons

  1. This was a good article until the end. I would like it if people would stop using the word hero when talking about victims. There was nothing heroic about the Harvey children, they were simply victims of unfortunate circumstances. Heroes are people who actively and knowingly enter a dangerous situation in order to help others. Hero is not a synonym for victim and using it as such cheapens the label for those who are truly heroic.

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