Arnold Ebneter: Balloon Pilot

Arnold became a balloon pilot on January 23, 1951. The balloon program had temporarily moved to the US Army’s White Sands Proving Ground. Now called White Sands Missile Range, the range is located in the south-central part of New Mexico, about 50 miles northwest of El Paso.

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Arnold’s First Balloon Flight, White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico

For Arnold’s first flight, the weather was typical for a January morning in New Mexico, sunny and chilly, but much warmer than the twenty below zero temperatures he and Charlie had left behind in Minneapolis. Since Arnold’s first flight was to try out some of his design changes, he had become a test pilot as well. He also carried an anchor he and Charlie hoped might provide for easier landings than the garden hose/rope combination they were using, especially during the windy conditions they were more likely to encounter in New Mexico. Both pilots had noticed that colorful drawings of balloons from the 1800s often depicted balloons with anchors, so they assumed the anchor must be a good way to stop a balloon. The anchor Arnold designed looked like a very large treble fishhook, weighed about two pounds, and attached to the balloon with a 100-foot nylon line.

Arnold and the balloon lifted off easily and after rising quickly to 1000 feet above the ground, he began drifting on a southwest heading toward the town of Las Cruces. After clearing the Organ Mountains, a small range of hills dividing White Sands from Las Cruces, he dropped down to about 200 feet above the ground, and flew silently for an hour, enjoying the desert sights below.

When it was time to land, Arnold decided to try out the anchor first. After descending a bit, he dropped the anchor from about 100 feet and snagged it on a piece of sagebrush. If there had been no wind, everything would have been fine; the anchor would have provided a stable platform. However, the 15-mile per hour wind blew the balloon sideways and turned Arnold into a human pogo stick — he banged onto the ground and then bounced violently back into the air. Although it might have made for a fun carnival ride, after three bounces Arnold had seen enough. He cut the anchor line, let the balloon climb back up, and then made an uneventful landing using the drag rope.

The ground crew chasing him in a Jeep arrived about ten minutes later to retrieve him and the balloon. However, they decided not to bother looking for the anchor, since Arnold had determined that, fanciful artist renditions aside, they were unlikely to try using it again. Somewhere in the wilds of New Mexico, that giant “fishhook” may still be waiting for someone to find it and wonder what sort of alien vehicle might have used it.

Arnold Ebneter: Accidental Balloon Engineer

About the time Arnold met Colleen, he also found a new job. His friend Charlie Moore was an engineer for General Mills, and he had a contract with the Navy to develop manned balloons that could stay aloft for up to twelve hours. Charlie had flown one manned flight in 1949, but he needed additional help to continue the program. He really needed three employees – another pilot, a mechanic, and an engineer – but he decided to hire Arnold because he could fill all three roles and thus save the program some money. Despite his lack of degree and his youth, by October Arnold was a General Mills employee and the project engineer for the balloon program. When the Minnesota National Guard activated on December 1, 1950 the Navy, not wanting to lose their prized new project engineer, arranged his to transfer to the Minnesota Air National Guard.

Despite the Navy perception of Arnold’s importance to their program, neither he nor Charlie knew much about manned balloons, and Arnold did not know much about balloons at all. However, if the balloonists-to-be had any doubts, the confidence of youth overcame them.


Charlie Moore in one of the General Mills balloons

Photos of these balloons do not inspire confidence that they could safely carry someone even five feet off the ground, let alone 5,000. Except for the use of a single balloon, the setup resembled a “lawn chair balloon” that Californian Larry Walters infamously used in 1982 to ascend to 15,000 feet, astonishing several nearby airline pilots. Federal authorities were not amused.

The GM balloons were legal, although the Navy took great pains to keep the program quiet. Each balloon was made of very thin polyethylene plastic and was twenty feet in diameter, when fully inflated with helium. Instead of the typical basket used on balloons to carry the pilot and passengers, the pilot dangled precariously below the balloon, attached using only the parachute for the instrument and a harness. With this unwieldy get-up, there was obviously no room for passengers, even if any had been willing to go for a ride.

Although Arnold modified later balloons with a plywood swing for the pilot to sit on, there was still nothing between the pilot and the ground, which made for interesting landings. The balloons leaked helium naturally, which caused the balloon to enter a gradual descent once it reached its maximum altitude on any given day. Once the balloon was about one hundred feet above the ground, the pilot would drop a one-inch weighted rope attached to the balloon. When the rope touched the ground, the weight of the balloon was reduced by the rope weight now on the ground, which caused the balloon to temporarily stop descending.

The pilot then brought himself to within five feet of the ground by simply hauling the rope into the basket; at five feet, the pilot pulled a balloon panel designed to rip away and deflate balloon, and the pilot dropped comfortably to the ground. Despite the simplicity of the system, it required a great deal of coordination and effort from the pilot. The landings could also become quite dicey when it was windy, as the rope did nothing to keep the balloon from blowing across the ground.