Into the wild blue yonder

By Grahame Wilson

Grahame Wilson, TV and film producer with the University of Sydney Television Service, from 1973-1993, was also on hand for one of the University’s now-forgotten adventures and remembers it well…

In 1962 a few students at St John’s College developed a light-hearted interest in hot air balloons. Terry McCormack and Terry Golding were the main enthusiasts; others joined them. By each donating the equivalent of about $50 they were able to start the design and construction of a balloon large enough to lift one person. Made of Mylar polyester film, coated with vaporised aluminium, the shape was a simple sphere, 9.7m in diameter, with a tangential cone 13.4m high, with a volume of 509.7 cubic metres.

Image of Archimedes ready to fly

Archimedes ready to fly. The wide open spaces around Parkes, NSW were ideal.

It was built in a cafeteria at Uni, the 28 lengths of delicate sheeting carefully stacked, then cut all at once by machine. Not much thicker than lolly wrapper, Mylar is incredibly difficult to tear – except from any exposed edges, where it displays frightening weakness. Finally, the gores were taped together, on both sides, using strong 5cm fibreglass reinforced tape.

In June 1963 they named it Archimedes and called themselves the Aerostat Society of Australia. The first test inflation was on the college grounds using an electric blower to lift the tethered balloon.

After that flight, the members organised a free – untethered – flight, which had to be well away from air traffic corridors at Parkes in western NSW. A crowd gathered to watch the intrepid young men prepare for the maiden flight. Beneath the balloon was a simple platform to support the pilot and a gas cylinder. Test pilot Terry McCormack steadied himself on the open platform but Archimedes, with its tiny burner, was unable to lift off.

There was little to jettison: Terry had no helmet, so he relinquished his parachute and that produced enough lift. Initially the tiny balloon dropped into a gully, followed by the crowd of spectators, but the balloon kept going and after 15 minutes, had climbed to 610m and traveled almost 5kms.

Image of the balloon Teijin I

High winds are the scourge of ballooning: Teijin I rises

Finally, the balloon descended behind a hill and landed heavily, flipping the platform upside down, leaving Terry suspended from a rope. When anxious spectators eventually arrived at the site he was found to be okay. It was Saturday, 4 July 1963 and Terry had made the first free balloon flight in Australia in more than 40 years.

The open platform and lack of lift was a worry; the result was a loss of enthusiasm among the group and only a few more free flights for Archimedes. Despite this, as a result of the publicity the students had achieved, the Teijin Company of Osaka in Japan donated fabric for another balloon. It was designed and built and, not surprisingly, was named Teijin I and at the time was the largest hot-air balloon in the world. Meanwhile, the Agricultural Society’s Pig and Horse Committee, having examined the ring events on offer for the Royal Easter Show of 1967, thought that a balloon launch might be an exciting departure from the regular dose of show jumping, sheep mustering and marching bands.

It was late one evening

As the only ballooning group in the country it was a golden opportunity for the Aerostat Society of Australia to earn some money, and the offer to launch Teijin I at the Show was accepted.
It was late one evening in the centre arena of the old Sydney Showground, now Fox Studios, when a trial run took place. I’d been invited by Ken Bath, my parachute instructor, to go along and perhaps help out as ground crew; and that’s when I first met Terry McCormack and had my first glimpse of a balloon.

A large gas burner began to roar and I was mesmerised as hot air poured into the balloon’s mouth and an unimpressive pile of fabric grew into a huge globe towering 23m above us. A few minutes later the burner was shut down and the balloon gently lifted and hovered silently in the gloom, above the ground mist. I could move it by hand. What other flying machine could grow from nothing, and then just float there in complete silence? The balloon bug had bitten me.

So, it was with that balloon, in front of large crowds at the Royal Easter Show, with one or two of us on board, would rise into the afternoon sky almost invariably as the wind also rose. It suited the Show’s timetable, but it was the most dangerous time to launch a balloon. No longer was it the gentle giant I’d met on that first night. In the wind it was a struggling monster seemingly bent on both our destruction and its own personal escape from the 60m tether. On one flight, Terry was caught inside the balloon itself as it began to lift to the vertical, and he was almost “poured” onto the roaring flame. In the arena we had it tethered to a large water tanker, but even then, unless filled with water, the tanker’s wheels often lifted off the ground.

The baloon crashed heavily

Later I learned that at its first test flight at St John’s Oval in 1965, a drunken bystander decided to pull the balloon down, but instead released all the hot air. Although only 3m above the ground, the balloon crashed heavily, landing on Terry, breaking his shoulder. Another member, Terry Golding was burnt when a fire started. It was almost a year before the group recovered. Despite this and the demands of university study, more successful flights were made in western NSW, free from any tether.

Image of Pioneer balloonist Stan Grincivicius kitted out for take off

Pioneer balloonist Stan Grincivicius kitted out for take off

Then, not long after, a new deflation system was tested at Canowindra. It was supposed to tip the balloon envelope upside down and release the 4.5 tons of hot air through the mouth, but a vital rope broke and Teijin escaped. The enormous envelope, without burner or gondola, rose rapidly. It was chased on foot, then by motorbike, then by car, then finally in a hired aircraft. It was last seen 130kms away at about 9000m.

The Aerostat Society was apparently finished, as no further news of the balloon came in. Instead of a balloon, they had debt. Two months later, a commercial aircraft pilot spotted what he thought was a parachute in thick forest, 140kms from the launch site. A bulldozer was brought in and the envelope was recovered. Damage was minor, although ultraviolet light had weakened the fabric.

After the Show, the group decided to travel to Canowindra in western NSW to fly untethered. The airspace was officially classified as “uncontrolled” and considering that Teijin was almost uncontrollable, it made sense.

Teijin struggled to reach 610m

On the first flight, Ken Bath went up to parachute from it. Teijin struggled to reach 610m; Ken made his jump and the balloon landed without incident. The next day, 11 June 1967, I went up. I was to jump while Stan Grincivicius and Don Joergens flew on and landed the balloon. They wore emergency harnesses with small reserve chutes stowed nearby to clip on, if necessary.

Because the balloon had numerous leaks, the burner ran constantly, making conversation impossible. After 20 minutes we reached 1400m. I climbed onto the edge of the gondola, very aware of the burner right beside me, and stepped off. We were over a large ploughed paddock. Ten seconds later, having dropped about 300m I opened the parachute. Looking up to check my canopy, I spotted Teijin above.

Teijin was made from a red and white striped fabric, however, I could see strips of silver, which was a puzzle, until I realised that I was seeing the inside of the envelope as it began to rip vertically and slowly turn inside out.

As I descended, Teijin was coming down even faster. They were in trouble. It was transfixing, hanging there, a spectator unable to help. Thankfully it wasn’t long before I saw someone jump and a small white canopy opened. Then another jumped and a parachute opened. Neither Stan nor Don had ever jumped or had any parachute training. The balloon kept on deflating and dropping faster. It fell between them and missed them both. It was falling ever faster, and then as it came level with me, the top suddenly burst open and the last bubble of air escaped and there was a roar of flapping fabric as it dived straight down.

Flung open like flower petals

It looked to be heading for an isolated farmhouse, but fortunately landed in a ploughed paddock nearby. From above, I saw it impact. The three metal sides of the gondola were flung open like flower petals, then were immediately buried as the trailing fabric poured onto it.

I had an easy landing on the ploughed field. It was strange, not a soul was in sight and not far away, on a gentle rise, was this lonely pile of wreckage. After the racket of the burner, the only sound was the fabric flapping gently in the breeze. One of the 45kg fuel tanks had been dented by a rock, but luckily didn’t explode. Don and Stan walked over a rise. They were unhurt. Don had nearly hit power lines. Stan missed a barbed wire fence by a whisker. We were lucky but Teijin was finished.

Image of Teijin I’s non-fatal demise

Teijin I’s non-fatal demise

Some years later I had two more balloon jumps. The last was from 4000m. I opened the parachute high and enjoyed the long glide to earth. I was then a science teacher. That career continued for 13 years. Not long after, I began working at the University’s TV Service. There I met many interesting people and did my best to comprehend their specialty, then produce a film or videotape about it. It could be the building of Gothic cathedrals, the workings of a radio telescope, infra-red spectroscopy; removing an enlarged thyroid, handling high voltage electricity, how to tranquilise a horse or perform a human postmortem. I spent 20 amazing years at Sydney, the last 12 in a wheelchair after a flying accident. Sadly for many of us, in 1993 the TV unit was shut down. And in the modern OH&S world, there is no room for balloons on the ovals either.