On May 29th, 1970, three balloonists were flying over Canada’s Yukon Territory when their balloon broke loose from the basket. After a crash landing in the Barrens, the balloon’s pilot and two passengers were found dead. The case was officially investigated by the North American Cessna Club, and the incident was widely reported by the media. The event was dubbed the “Barrens Balloon Crash.”
The photo above was taken by the Guardian newspaper in 1970, shortly after a records-breaking journey by three British balloonists to the outer reaches of the atmosphere above the Earth’s atmosphere. It was the first time anyone had ever made it that high, and the trio were attempting to smash the world altitude record by a full kilometer. The other two men took to the air at the same time as their colleague, but his balloon was torn from the sky and he was left with no option but to parachute to safety. The pair who went on to break the record were subsequently awarded the National Medal of Technology.
A British balloonist and a husband-and-wife team vanished without a trace fifty years ago while attempting to fly across the Atlantic in a balloon dubbed The Free Life.
For more than 150 years, balloonists have found crossing the Atlantic Ocean to be an irresistible challenge. Rodney Anderson, his wife Pamela Brown, and British balloonist Malcolm Brighton believed they had the abilities and the balloon to be the first to complete the historic expedition in the summer of 1970. However, the charming trio’s efforts fell short when they underestimated or ignored the risks involved. On a gorgeous September day, the three explorers launched their balloon, The Free Life, from Long Island, sipping champagne and cheered on by friends and family, with the goal of reaching Europe in five days. They were never seen or heard from again.
Rod Anderson, then 32 years old, had the idea for a transatlantic journey in the mid-1960s. The idea that no one has flown a balloon across the Atlantic piqued the interest of a New York commodities broker. Anderson had no expertise in ballooning, but he believed it would be a good way for him to establish himself as a member of the aristocratic Brown family of ancient Kentucky, into which he had lately married.
Rod Anderson (middle) and his actress wife, Pamela Brown, were the driving forces behind the Free Life initiative, despite their lack of experience (left). (Photo courtesy of Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Pamela Anderson, Anderson’s wife, was the daughter of a prominent Kentucky lawyer and U.S. politician. John Y. Brown Jr., her older brother, would go on to become Kentucky governor and make a fortune founding the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. She left Kentucky’s country club lifestyle at an early age to pursue an acting career in New York City. When Anderson offered the Atlantic flight, she understood next to nothing about ballooning, but she accepted since its success would give her worldwide attention and reputation, as well as maybe help her career. Brown’s family was first hesitant, and her mother was adamantly opposed to the risky project. Her wealthy father, on the other hand, would quickly come around, offering both moral and financial support.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s that complicated” to fly across the Atlantic, Anderson once stated in an interview, “you just inflate this giant balloon and off you go.” The actuality of transoceanic ballooning, on the other hand, is significantly more difficult. Pilots Maxie Anderson and Ben Abruzzo discovered themselves drifting off course on the coast of Iceland three days after launching their balloon Double Eagle from Massachusetts. The next year, due to a lack of wind, British pilots Don Cameron and Chris Davey were forced to abandon their balloon Zanussi barely 110 miles from the French coast.
Anderson never intended for him or his wife to get onboard the trip in the first place. Brown’s role was to assist with what was expected to be a frenzy of media interest, and he saw himself as a project manager. Mike Semich of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, designed the new balloon, which was a sophisticated hot-air/helium hybrid known as a Rozier, named after pioneer balloonist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, who conceived the concept in 1784.
Finding a certified pilot for the project proved difficult. Anderson was convinced that the position should be comparable to that of a sailboat helmsman. The pilot would merely “steer” the vessel through the air while a balloon “commander” gave orders. Naturally, qualified balloonists regarded this arrangement very differently, so there were certain to be some arguments. In 1969, an overland test flight of the new balloon ended in disappointment when pilot Jim Contos was forced to make an early landing due to technical failure. The damaged balloon need costly repairs and adjustments, and $6,000 in helium was lost, prompting Contos to abandon the project.
Anderson’s dissatisfaction with the test flight may have prompted him to take a more active role in the trip by assuming command of the balloon. Three years of effort had yielded only a 40-mile flight, and expenses were mounting. Anderson and Brown were under a lot of pressure to get their project up and running. The Free Life was dubbed the couple’s “monster in the backyard,” as it required regular attention and feeding. The 1970 Atlantic ballooning season was rapidly approaching, but the enterprise was in serious need of a hero to save the day without a pilot.
Malcolm Brighton, a British balloonist, was aware of the projected American transatlantic expedition and had contemplated it himself, but the price were prohibitive. In the European ballooning fraternity, Brighton was well-known as a safe and responsible pilot. Rod Anderson’s call both flattered and fascinated the 32-year-old father of two. A successful transatlantic flight would cement his reputation as the world’s best balloonist and cement his position in history.
When Brighton met Anderson and Brown in New York that summer, his enthusiasm grew even more. The personalities of the three simply “clicked.” Brighton even agreed to Brown flying with them, a feature they would keep hidden until launch day because her mother had expressly forbidden it. Brighton’s air of confidence and vast pool of aeronautical knowledge drew the couple in. Brown called the dashing Englishman “an incredible jewel.” He’s the one who’s going to save this project.” The balloon pilot saw a potential for fame, glory, and wealth in this turnkey business. Until he saw The Free Life, that is.
After inspecting Anderson and Brown’s “monster in the backyard,” Brighton informed the reporters, “I think I could have done better.” His keen observations rapidly exposed the balloon’s numerous flaws. The 73,000 cubic feet of helium capacity was less than he needed to carry enough provisions for a five-day journey. Leaks and misfires plagued the crude propane burner. Because of its shallow saucer form, the gondola’s seaworthiness was questioned, as it may be swamped in large seas.
The Free Life is inflated with the help of volunteers. (Photo courtesy of Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) )
Above importantly, in the case of an open-sea ditching, there was no way to immediately remove the balloon from the gondola. Because the project was already considerably over budget, Anderson thought this alternative was too expensive. When the envelope struck the sea, the crew removed all ten load straps at the same time, freeing the envelope and leaving the three occupants to ride the waves in the floating gondola until they were rescued. In ideal circumstances, this would necessitate meticulous coordination at a vital moment. Slicing all ten straps at once would be even more difficult in stormy seas and a strong breeze. Even if one or two straps remain intact, the gondola could tip, spilling the passengers and contents into the lake.
As the autumn storm season approached, time was running out to fix these difficulties. However, postponing the flight until 1971 was not an option for the exhausted couple. Brown stated, “We’ve already cancelled for two years.” “It’s time for us to leave. There is no other option.” Brighton changed his mind about his criticism and agreed to return to Long Island in September to join the team.
On the day of the launch, September 20, 1970, the weather was ideal. More than 1,500 people gathered in George Miller’s meadow on Long Island near Springs to watch the red, white, and yellow balloon being prepared. Anderson, Brown, and Brighton had had little sleep because the inflation process took most of the night. By midday, though, the three heroes had taken center stage and were celebrating with friends and family. Anderson, dressed in a yellow jumpsuit, exuded authority. With his lovely British accent and disheveled blond hair, Brighton exuded confidence, finishing the look of an aristocratic adventurer with a pipe clamped in his teeth. Brown smiled like a movie star as she captured the day’s highlights on her handheld Super 8 camera.
Just before the launch, Malcolm Brighton opens a bottle of champagne. (Genie Chipps Henderson/Genie Chipps Henderson/Genie Chipps Henderson/Genie Chipps Henderson/Genie Chipp
Supplies were loaded onto the gondola, radios were tested, and the American and British flags were hung side by side in the eight-story balloon’s rigging. Brown’s father was present, wearing a brown alpaca suit that stood out among the crowd. Her mother was at a spa in South America, where she had only discovered the night before that her daughter planned to be onboard The Free Life when it left. She made frantic phone calls to family members in an attempt to avert the launch, but it was futile.
The trio passed around a bottle of champagne while waving goodbyes as they took off to the delight of the crowd. It was the ideal way to cap off a fantastic day full of optimism and promise for a smooth trip to Europe. This was Brighton’s 100th balloon flight, but Anderson and Brown’s first.
A balloon launch from a busy location is a study in contrasts. The next instant, you’re surrounded by people, with hundreds of people crowding around the gondola, taking photos, asking questions, and craning their necks to peer inside. Then, all of a sudden, quiet envelopes you as you gently drift away. This was the first time the adventurers had felt at ease in a long time. The trio must have been thinking about how their voyage would finish as Miller’s farm faded into the distance and the Atlantic loomed ahead of them. What would be their landing spot? Ireland? France? Spain? Brighton, no doubt, wished to return to England to be closer to his family and friends.
The balloon was secured by a makeshift ground crew until Brighton commanded them to let go. (Photo courtesy of The East Hampton Star’s Everett Rattray)
Radio transmissions reveal a few details about the flight’s progress, which swiftly went bad. The troubled burner kept breaking down, and it was soon deemed inoperable. Due to the lack of a burner to reheat the helium in the balloon, valuable ballast had to be ejected throughout the night to maintain the balloon in the air. Brighton must have came to the inescapable conclusion that reaching Europe was impossible in the light of Monday morning, after taking stock of the remaining ballast and the mileage logged thus far. The Free Life’s underpowered range meant it couldn’t stay aloft for the next four days.
When Brighton brought out these heinous truths, one can only imagine the heated debates that transpired among the trio. The appropriate course of action would have been to immediately call for search and rescue and ditch into the water early in the day, giving rescuers enough daylight to locate and rescue the crew. But Anderson and Brown must have thought giving up so early in the trip was a terrible idea. They’d invested so much time and money to get here—shouldn’t they keep going until the last ounce of ballast was gone? They would almost certainly have urged Brighton to keep on.
Mother Nature, on the other hand, has a stake in this decision, albeit a silent one until now. And she was on the verge of being aggressive.
A westbound jet radioed a weather warning for the approaching storm. The warm sunshine had given way to clouds, which had cooled the helium in the balloon and denied the crew the benefit of “free lift” that gas balloonists enjoy on sunny days. The grim news that the balloon was nearing a cold front was confirmed by a meteorologist. A westerly surface wind of 20 knots was predicted, with wave heights of up to six feet. A chilly rain may have begun at this time, obstructing visibility and exacerbating the problem of lost lift, as a rain-soaked balloon can quickly amass unwanted pounds. Despite the perilous conditions, the group decided to wait until nearly dusk before bailing. The final dramatic radio communication from Brighton to Gander, Newfoundland, suggested that they were headed into the water and needed search and rescue. They’d only been in the air for 30 hours at that point.
“They really hadn’t thought out the business of what to do when coming down in the water,” Anthony Smith, balloonist, explorer, and author of The Free Life: The Spirit of Courage, Folly, and Obsession, later said in an interview. If everything had gone perfectly, Anderson, Brighton, and Brown would have cut those ten straps at the same time as the gondola reached the water. The empty envelope would then soar into the sky, leaving the gondola and its passengers adrift on the waters. Brighton would have reported a successful touchdown to Gander along with a rough location, activated the emergency locator beacon, and the trio would have weathered the storm while waiting for help.
From the gondola, Brown, Anderson, and Brighton assess the scene at George Miller’s farm. (Photo courtesy of The East Hampton Star’s Everett Rattray)
However, it appears that the landing did not go as planned. There were no more transmissions reported, and the emergency beacon’s signal was not picked up. At first light on Tuesday morning, search planes from the US and Canadian coast guards arrived on the spot and began a thorough search of the seas near The Free Life’s last recorded position, 500 miles east-southeast of St. John’s, Newfoundland. Flares, medical supplies, a huge amount of food, and a four-person inflatable raft were all aboard the gondola, offering hope that the crew would be rescued.
The coast guards proposed calling off the search after three days because nothing had been found. Brown’s father enlisted the help of Washington insiders, and the hunt was extended for a few more days. A total of 370 search hours were flown, with a few item sightings being probed. In every case, the things turned out to be fishing gear or other trash that had nothing to do with The Free Life.
When the coast guards left, Brown’s father hired a private DC-6 with an eight-person crew to continue exploring the region. The plane flew search patterns for 68 hours, with spectators stationed at every window, including some relatives and friends. However, the attempt was in vain.
Out of desperation, the family enlisted the help of a Dutch clairvoyant, who reported that two of Brown, Anderson, and Brighton were still alive eight days after leaving after handling their personal things. The survivors, he claimed, might be found hundreds of kilometers away from the original search grid. Another plane investigated the region, but no sign of the balloon or its crew was ever discovered.
The immediate impact of The Free Life tragedy on the world’s expanding community, and what would become known as the “race for the Atlantic,” was perhaps the tragedy’s most lasting legacy. The deaths of three clever and capable people raised the stakes dramatically, adding a new level of drama and urgency to the situation. This instilled a new sense of morality in subsequent attempts, as though each new flight was dedicated to the trailblazers who had sacrificed their lives to pave the road. The second attempt on the Atlantic was made three years later, and nine more flights were made before the decade ended. In 1974, two balloonists were killed in separate attempts, one of whom vanished without a trace.
The voyage was finally completed in 1978, when three Americans landed their helium balloon Double Eagle II in France 137 hours after leaving Presque Isle, Maine. Hundreds of well-wishers surrounded pilots Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman as they made a successful landing 50 miles west of Paris. The corks popped, the cameras clicked, and the three men were promptly dubbed air heroes. The trio flipped a coin to decide who would sleep in the “Lindbergh Bed” at the American Embassy after a spectacular supper at Maxim’s in Paris (the original bed Charles Lindbergh slept in on his first night in Paris, May 21, 1927).
Double Eagle II photos and film were widely circulated in newspapers and on television across the world. Newsweek, National Geographic, and Sports Illustrated all featured the balloon on their covers. The three was greeted with a tickertape procession when they returned to Albuquerque, New Mexico. From the White House, President Jimmy Carter thanked the balloonists, and Congress issued a special gold medal in their honor. The gondola from the Double Eagle II was on exhibit near Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis at the National Air and Space Museum.
The Free Life, free of its earthly confines, takes off on its transatlantic journey. The balloon ditched in the Atlantic instead of floating to Europe, killing all three crew members. (Getty Images/Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection) )
In the 50 years since The Free Life attempt, the Atlantic has been crossed by balloon 17 times. Since then, the Rozier hot air and helium design has been refined, and it is currently the industry standard for long-distance ballooning. “Although they failed to generate the desired result of crossing the Atlantic, the technology they chose was the proper one for the job,” said record-breaking balloonist Troy Bradley, who has flown across the Atlantic and Pacific. The hybrid system has established itself time and time again as the greatest solution for ultra-long-distance flights since 1992, when Richard Abruzzo and I achieved the absolute duration record in a Rozier balloon.” By 1999, Rozier technology had progressed even further when the Breitling Orbiter 3 completed the first balloon flight around the world, a feat that has since been achieved twice more, each time in a Rozier balloon.
In retrospect, the flight of The Free Life poses an essential question: What could inspire three intelligent and successful individuals to jump onboard a shaky balloon, throw caution to the wind, and fly off into the unknown on a journey with the slimmest of chances of success? Individually, any one of them may have deemed the risks too great and chosen to remain on the ground. Rod Anderson, Pamela Brown, and Malcolm Brighton, however, were so motivated by one another by their shared objectives that none of them had the courage to say “no.” Even a smidgeon of discouragement could be construed as a betrayal of their shared dream. It was a perfect storm of sound thinking, poor judgment, and rash emotion.
Brown’s childhood friend Genie Chipps Henderson had assisted with the planning and preparations for the flight and was present at the launch. She wrote lines to Brighton’s widow in the weeks after the tragedy that served as a fitting epitaph for the three: “My only thoughts now are that all three, for their own individual reasons, were doing something they dearly loved and believed in—the day they left, I can’t describe how beautiful it was.” It was a time when everything seemed to be in order—for them and for the rest of us. I realize that momentary excellence came at a high cost.”
Jerry Copas, an Indiana-based author and historian for the Balloon Society of Kentucky, has been a balloonist for 40 years. Further reading: Anthony Smith’s The Free Life: The Spirit of Courage, Folly, and Obsession; and Hands Off! William G. Armstrong Jr. and Michael C. Emich wrote Epic Adventures of the Balloon Flyers of Akron.
This article was first published in the July 2023 issue of Aviation History. Make sure you don’t miss an issue by subscribing!
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