The Light Heart Trans-Atlantic Balloon Attempt

Tom’s attempt to be the first person to cross the Atlantic by balloon was different from any of the previous approaches in that it would use a cluster of 10 super-pressure helium balloons built by Raven Industries to use the jet stream to cross the Atlantic.   The original theory was based on ideas from an earlier aeronaut John Wise and using scientific balloons that had a history and performance for carrying high altitude payloads is how the Light Heart project began!

Tom’s plan was to ascend to 40,000 feet into the jet stream and fly across the Atlantic to Europe.  He named the project Light Heart but I think it should have been titled “Strong Heart” as he spent two years working full time to support this project and spent over $60,000 of his own hard earned money to make this project take flight.

During the two years he had built the pressured gondola in his home and made it insulated with the ability to have radar bounce of the gondola in the event he was forced to ditch as sea.

On February 18, 1974, Tom ascended at 19:29 hours at Harrisburg Airport in Pennsylvania as he stood in the hatch of the Light Heart and waved farewell to family and friends.  Above hanging in the rigging of the gondola was a pennant from the battleship “South Dakota” to honor his father who served.

Light Heart ascended to 18,000 feet over Dover, Delaware and was headed towards Atlantics City.  At 20:45 hours into the flight Tom reported that one of his balloons had burst and the reason was unknown but he thought the flight could continue because the thought this situation was again stabilized.   Over the next two days, the Light Heart continued on an easterly course flying at altitudes above 35,000 feet and was consistently checking in with passenger airliners.

The last contact was with BOAC flight 583 at 1250 hours Tuesday, 19 February, 925 miles northeast of San Juan on a course that was way south of the flight plan.  This course took him away for the most heavily traveled commercial air-lanes and out of radio contact.

The last known sighting was from Liberian freight Ore Meriden that spotted the Light Hear shortly after dawn on Thursday, 1000 miles west of the Canaries which was farther south than previous position reports.  Sadly the last reported sighting did not reach the mission control until several days later.

The Meridian reported an apparently lifeless balloon floating far off course and at a low altitude. No further information about Tom has been received since the Meridian’s sighting on 21 February 1974. There was a search by US military aircraft and ships, as well as commercial planes and vessels, all to no avail. Tom’s sister offered a $10,000 reward and distributed flyers in likely areas with information about Tom’s flight.  The Light Hear had disappeared but Tom’s determination and imagination have not been forgotten!

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The new balloon almost completed at the Lindstrand Factory. .. You can see the knots in the sea of green!

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How Hot Air Balloons Works

If you actually need to get somewhere, a hot air balloon is a fairly impractical vehicle.You can’t really steer it, ­and it only travels as fast as the wind blows. But if you simply want to enjoy the experience of flying, there’s nothing quite like it. Many people describe flying in a hot air ballo­on as one of the most serene, enjoyable activities they’ve ever experienced.

Hot air balloons are also an ingenious application of basic scientific principles. In this article, we’ll see what makes these balloons rise up in the air, and we’ll also find out how the balloon’s design lets the pilot control altitude and vertical speed. You’ll be amazed by the beautiful simplicity of these early flying machin­es.

Hot air balloons are based on a very basic scientific principle: warmer air rises in cooler air. Essentially, hot air is lighter than cool air, because it has less mass per unit of volume. A cubic foot of air weighs roughly 28 grams (about an ounce). If you heat that air by 100 degrees F, it weighs about 7 grams less. Therefore, each cubic foot of air contained in a hot air balloon can lift about 7 grams. That’s not much, and this is why hot air balloons are so huge — to lift 1,000 pounds, you need about 65,000 cubic feet of hot air.



Rising Balloons

To keep the balloon rising, you need a way to reheat the air. Hot air balloons do this with a burner positioned under an open balloon envelope. As the air in the balloon cools, the pilot can reheat it by firing the burner.

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The History of Hot Air Balloons

On the 19th September 1783 Pilatre De Rozier, a scientist, launched the first hot air balloon called ‘Aerostat Reveillon’. The passengers were a sheep, a duck and a rooster and the balloon stayed in the air for a grand total of 15 minutes before crashing back to the ground.

The first manned attempt came about 2 months later on 21st November, with a balloon made by 2 French brothers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. The balloon was launched from the centre of Paris and flew for a period of 20 minutes. The birth of hot air ballooning!!!

Just 2 years later in 1785 a French balloonist, Jean Pierre Blanchard, and his American co pilot, John Jefferies, became the first to fly across the English Channel. In these early days of ballooning, the English Channel was considered the first step to long distance ballooning so this was a large benchmark in ballooning history.

Unfortunately, this same year Pilatre de Rozier (the world’s first balloonist) was killed in his attempt at crossing the channel. His balloon exploded half an hour after takeoff due to the experimental design of using a hydrogen balloon and hot air balloon tied together.

The next major pivotal point in balloon history was on January 7th 1793. Jean Pierre Blanchard became the first to fly a hot air balloon in North America. George Washington was present to see the balloon launch.

Now a large jump in time, of over 100 years: In August of 1932 Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard was the first to achieve a manned flight to the Stratosphere. He reached a height of 52,498 feet, setting the new altitude record. Over the next couple of years, altitude records continued to be set and broken every couple of months – the race was on to see who would reach the highest point.

In 1935 a new altitude record was set and it remained at this level for the next 20 years. The balloon Explorer 2, a gas helium model reached an altitude of 72,395 feet (13.7 miles)! For the first time in history, it was proven that humans could survive in a pressurized chamber at extremely high altitudes. This flight set a milestone for aviation and helped pave the way for future space travel.

The Altitude record was set again in 1960 when Captain Joe Kittinger parachute jumped from a balloon that was at a height of 102,000 feet. The balloon broke the altitude record and Captain Kittinger, the high altitude parachute jump record. He broke the sound barrier with his body!


In 1978, the Double Eagle II became the first balloon to cross the Atlantic, another major benchmark in the History of Ballooning. After many unsuccessful attempts (see our section on Atlantic Crossings for more detailed accounts) this mighty Ocean had finally been cracked. It was a helium filled model, carrying 3 passengers, Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman. They set a new flight duration time at 137 hours. There is a full story breakdown here in the Atlantic Conquered part of the site.


The first Pacific crossing was achieved 3 years later in 1981. The Double Eagle V launched from Japan on November 10th and landed 84 hours later in Mendocino National Forest, California. The 4 pilots set a new distance record at 5,678 miles. 3 years after this, Captain Joe Kittinger flew 3,535 miles on the first solo transatlantic balloon flight, setting yet another record.

In 1987 Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand were the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon, rather than a helium/gas filled balloon. They flew a distance of 2,900 miles in a record breaking time of 33 hours. At the time, the envelope they used was the largest ever flown, at 2.3 million cubic feet of capacity. A year later, Per Lindstand set yet another record, this time for highest solo flight ever recorded in a hot air balloon – 65,000 feet!

The great team of Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand paired up again in 1991 and became the first to cross the Pacific in a hot air balloon. They travelled 6,700 miles in 47 hours, from Japan to Canada breaking the world distance record, travelling at speeds of up to 245 mph. 4 years later, Steve Fossett became the first to complete the Transpacific balloon route by himself, travelling from Korea and landing in Canada 4 days later.

Finally, in 1999 the first around the world flight was completed by Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones. Leaving from Switzerland and landing in Africa, they smashed all previous distance records, flying for 19 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes. Follow this link for a more detailed description and breakdown of the flight in our Around the World Flights section.

It’s interesting to see how the development of the the hot air balloon has gone full circle on itself. At the very start, the first balloonists burnt materials onboard the balloon to generate heat to propel the envelope into the air. This theory then became obsolete as gas and helium designs were introduced as it was considered safer and more reliable than flying with an open flame. It is only within the last 50 or so years that hot air balloons have come back into interest.

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Enjoy a magnificent hot air balloon over the Litchfield, CT countryside with Are Blarney balloon company. We operate daily, year round. Champagne charters are also available. Advance reservations are required.