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.

AE_Jan 1951

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.