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!