Sun, April 20, 2014

Hot Air, Cold Feat

A Birmingham couple hold the distinction of being the first people to fly a hot air balloon over the North Pole, and that's only one chapter in their adventurous lives.

April 02, 2009

For most Southerners, the North Pole and all things Arctic are a world away. Yet for some people—say, Canadians—the icy vistas of the North Pole aren't so remote.

Among downtown Birmingham's residents roosts a pair of rare birds, Sidney and Elenor Conn. The couple, originally from Calgary, moved to Birmingham two years ago from Statesville, North Carolina, where for 22 years they owned Firefly Balloons, a hot air balloon manufacturing company. They purchased the company after having flown one of its balloons over the North Pole, making them the first people to do so. This stunt—for that's how it began, as an advertising gimmick—occurred 29 years ago on April 11, 1980. Today, displayed in the lobby of the downtown building where the Conns reside are a hot air balloon basket, several framed maps, and photos that serve as an understated testament to the trip.

Sidney and Elenor Conn begin their flight over the North Pole in 1980 (click for larger version)

You could say the couple represents the exact demographic loft renovators seek: retired Baby Boomers choosing an urban style of living. Although it is true the Conns moved here to be closer to their grandchildren, they are anything but typical grandparents. Sidney, 66, owns and is restoring more than a dozen Italian cars, and he also collects and rides Italian Moto Guzzi motorcycles. (He holds several land speed records for riding them at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and the Maxton Mile in North Carolina.) Elenor, or El, who is 64, creates fusion glass artwork in her high-tech studio.

The pair recently recounted the tale of their journey from Canada's Rocky Mountains to the North Pole and back.

Sub-zero Dreams

When they first considered buying a hot air balloon, the Conns, who owned an electronics store in Calgary, thought it might serve as a good marketing tool. "We thought we'd buy the balloon [printed with the store's name, Joy of Sound], then let a local flying club use it," Sidney recalls. "But then they only wanted to fly it on the weekends, and way out in the country." The Conns had other notions. "I woke up with the idea, for an advertising stunt, to fly the balloon over the North Pole." At this time the Conns were in their late 30s with three young children.

Though this feat had never been accomplished, it had been attempted more than 100 years ago. In 1897, a Swedish explorer named Solomon August Andrée and two companions tried to fly a hydrogen balloon over the North Pole. When the balloon crashed, all three men were unharmed but stranded on constantly shifting ice. After walking for months, the team arrived at a deserted Arctic island, where they eventually perished.

The Conns, however, knew little or nothing of this. Sidney, a former radar engineer who worked with the U.S. government on weapons systems during the Vietnam War, decided he should learn to fly the balloon himself, and then he and his wife would glide over the North Pole. They embarked on a year-long research project, contacting anyone they could think of who might have knowledge of Arctic exploration, including the Arctic Institute of North America (based in Calgary), the Canadian Geographic Society (who, according to Sidney, told them it couldn't be done), and oil exploration companies that have rigs in the Arctic Ocean. They ordered a custom-built balloon carriage, or basket, that they could assemble on ice while wearing thick gloves. After locating a company that had been tracking ice floes in the area since 1946, the Conns called the Russian embassy for assistance with weather data. They found a company of bush pilots who would fly supplies to the base camp, and then hired a commercial videographer and a photographer to record the adventure.

Due North, No?

Sidney Conn (center) and crew unpacking the balloon. The time capsule can be seen in the background at right. (click for larger version)

"The trickiest part of all of this," Sidney says, "was finding the North Pole."

There is no permanent position to the North Pole because it moves up to six nautical miles per day. Lines of longitude all converge at the North Pole, so there is no defined time zone. Sidney realized he would have to learn to use an aircraft sextant to locate the Pole. This instrument, Sidney says, uses an artificial horizon (a bubble level) because there is no stable reference horizon in an aircraft as there is at sea. Sidney placed an ad in a local newspaper to find an Atlantic sailor who could teach him how to use the device. A Norwegian man responded and agreed to teach Sidney twice a week for nine months. Meanwhile, Sidney had managed to log just enough balloon piloting hours to feel confident that he could do it at the northernmost place on Earth.

Elenor and Sidney ordered their Arctic wear and practiced layering it on. They thought they had the details of the flight figured out until the issue of propane came up three weeks before the trip. Propane is the standard hot air balloon fuel; Sidney says he called the Resolute Bay area, where they would be starting their trip north, "to make sure our propane fittings would interconnect with whatever people there used." But he discovered that as far north as they were going, propane, which stays liquid until it reaches at least -44F, isn't even available. The temperatures at the North Pole wouldn't be that balmy. "I almost had heart failure when they told me that nobody in the Arctic uses propane," Sidney recalls. So he decided they would send some, illegally. "We shipped it in wooden 'coffins,'" he says.

In April of 1980, the month during which the sea ice is normally at its most stable, the group of 10 adventurers flew north from Calgary. The Conns' three children were staying with their grandparents, who knew nothing of what the couple was up to, Sidney recalls. "The kids were sworn to secrecy and just told their grandparents we were on a trip, but didn't say where."

Lee Conn, their younger son, who resides in Birmingham, was only eight years old at the time but says he remembers it "vividly. It was wild. With my parents there were never any barriers as to what they could or couldn't do. We never had a feeling of 'we can't do that off-the-wall thing because we don't have the resources.' They were always doing interesting things, and it always seemed like second nature to us. With this trip, it was like it was already done before it started."

The group flew by commercial airliner to Resolute Bay—Canada's northernmost shipping port and home to an air base and an Inuit village. From the bay they transferred their gear to a DC-3, one of only two types of plane sturdy enough to fly in the Arctic, and flew farther north to Eureka. There they were met by a small twin-engine plane, called an Otter, which flew them to a base camp at Lake Hazen on Ellesmere Island, the largest lake in the world entirely north of the Arctic Circle. Several of the flights took many hours, Elenor recalls, and were not pleasant.

"The temperature in the body of the plane ranged from -40F where we were sitting to 90F in the cockpit," she says. "It was very loud, and we were constantly shouting to the pilots to turn the heat up and then back down."

The plan was to fly the Otter to a spot where, the previous fall, a hired crew had deposited fuel on the ice for the Conns' trip to the Pole and back. But when they arrived at camp, their fuel was gone, so they sent the plane to Mould Bay, in the Northwest Territories, to a fuel depot. The plane crashed on the ice while landing and, though still flyable, was damaged and not suited for the trip north. Meanwhile, an Arctic storm was moving in on the group. The crew got into the damaged plane, flew back to Resolute Bay, and waited for two days for a new plane to come from Edmonton, some 14 hours away. While there, Elenor, who had worked as a teacher, started a newspaper in the Inuit town of approximately 150 people. It was handwritten and titled The North Post.

When the weather cleared, the group went back up to their base at Lake Hazen. There Sidney and Elenor made test flights, inflating and flying the balloon to an altitude of 200 feet, at which point it "flew solar," maintaining altitude without fuel due to heat from the sun.

"The air was very dense and dry, and with the permanent daylight I could have stayed up indefinitely," Sidney recalls.

Out of nowhere, a helicopter flew over the base camp, then a while later returned and landed. Six Canadian Forces soldiers introduced themselves, and the Conns' crew took them in for the night. "They wouldn't say what they were doing up there, and were very secretive," Sidney recalls. Elenor served the soldiers Arctic char from the lake, with a cake baked on an oil stove for dessert. Each man gave the couple a memento to take on the flight. "One French Canadian who barely spoke English finally gave us his hat," Sidney says. "This had such meaning, because up there every piece of clothing is crucial—you could die without it."

They carried these mementos with them on the flight, along with a time capsule filled with letters (from their children, and one from the Swedish ambassador to Canada, in Andrée's honor), maps, and flags. They knew that odds were against the capsule being found on the ever-shifting ice. "It's probably in the sea," Elenor says.

A Silent Reverence

When the time came to make the balloon flight, the Conns boarded the plane and flew north, making what Sidney calls "the roughest landing I've ever experienced" among icy pressure ridges on a frozen sea. The temperature was near -60F. They had spent nights sleeping with their smuggled propane tanks to keep them warm enough for the balloon flight. "Believe me, there is nothing colder," Sidney says.

Using Sidney's readings from an instrument called an Astro Compass, the crew flew to within a few nautical seconds of the North Pole. Sidney then used his sextant skills to position it at 90 north. In a moment of excitement, he removed his gloves and held the sextant with his bare hands, burning them on the instrument's cold metal. "I had scars for three months," he says. "I took nine readings and plotted the spot where I felt the pole must be. Today, with GPS systems, it'd be easy."

With the help of the other crew members, Sidney and Elenor staked a 60-foot-diameter parachute into the ice as a target. It was marked with four arrows, each pointing south. They took the balloon to the Siberian side, a few kilometers from the Pole, and from there the couple flew alone together over the North Pole.

"We finally cut loose and gained altitude," Sidney says. "I looked ahead and saw that what had appeared to be fairly smooth ice was actually jagged and almost mountainous. The winds had picked up, and I realized that if we landed in an ice valley, we could be lost to view and very difficult to locate. I opted to do a hard landing on a very bumpy field, and we dragged for some time. After I managed to deflate the balloon, I was relieved to find that neither El nor I had suffered any injury . . . broken bones up there would have been catastrophic. The plane landed and the crew found us. We were all elated but curiously quiet."

The entire flight lasted about four hours. Sidney says there is no real way to estimate the distance they flew, but the mere fact that they got the balloon to inflate and fly in such harsh conditions was an unprecedented feat.

The flight was potentially very dangerous—the balloon flew over their airborne plane, which had taken off immediately after the Conns with the cinematographer and photographer on board. If the balloon and plane had crashed, they would all have been stranded at the top of the world. "I think I had about 38 flight hours before I did this and had owned the balloon about 8 months," Sidney smiles.

Upon touching down, each "ate" a frozen celebratory of frozen champagne.

"When we were finally on the ice, a calmness came over us, and we were almost silent with reverence for where we were and for those who had come before," Sidney says. "We spoke in whispers and even resented the crunchy sounds that our boots made on the ice. I can't explain the feeling, but it was as close to a real spiritual experience as I've ever had."

The crew set about cleaning up to leave no trace of their feat behind, except the time capsule. "The North Pole is a holy place," Sidney says, "and we did not want to leave any trace of having been there. We even laboriously removed the ice screws from the wind-polished, concrete-like ice."

When they returned to Resolute Bay, they received a warm welcome. "The native peoples' reactions were quite warm. We weren't the first to try something like this," Sidney says. There had been an attempt by a Japanese man to "sail" a sailboat over the ice (it was ripped to shreds); another man had tried riding a motorcycle over the Pole but got only about 200 feet.

Their story was national news in Canada, but the Conns say the biggest thrill (outside of the trip itself) was an event held in their honor at the Swedish consulate in Calgary. More than 120 Swedish delegates had gathered to celebrate the Conns' feat and to award them with the Solomon Andrée medal. "One hundred of these were struck in Sweden in 1937, and they are only presented to those who do a very great service to the [Swedish] Crown," Sidney says. "I was awestruck."

When the Conns retell their story nearly 30 years later, they make it sound as if it wasn't such an unusual trip. The couple says they came away with a deep respect for the Inuit people and the weather at the planet's northernmost point. "It's hard to understand how your life hangs on a thread up there," Sidney says. Although they still balloon occasionally, they're happy today focusing on more land-based pursuits, like babysitting those grandkids.

Ballooning 101

Lee Conn, son of North Pole hot air balloon expeditioneers Sidney and Elenor Conn, says of his dad, "He totally revolutionized the hot air balloon industry. He took it from an industry run by sort of an unscientific group of hippies to a very technologically advanced, forward-thinking industry using high-tech materials. He's probably the most knowledgeable person on Earth about hot air balloons." I asked Sidney to give a simplified explanation of how a hot air balloon works. Here's his take:

"A hot air balloon is made either of nylon or Dacron panels sewn together to form the characteristic light-bulb shape. Heating the air in the balloon with a propane-fired burner makes it less dense than the surrounding ambient air and the balloon rises. Since the balloon is moving at the same speed as the wind, there is no turbulence in the carriage, and it is very calm on board, even at very high ground speeds.

Balloons have surprising capabilities. Because the altitude record in a hot air balloon is over 60,000 feet. The balloon is the only aircraft that can carry multiples of its own weight. A hot air balloon can climb at a very high rate of speed, although it will only fall at about half the speed of a parachute. The standard sport balloon can climb at over 2,400 feet per minute.

Ballooning is the safest of all wind sports. Since balloons are certified as aircraft by the FAA, they must be inspected annually. Pilots are rigorously trained and must hold an FAA-issued pilot certificate."

In Birmingham, Sidney says, the group to contact if you want to take a hot air balloon ride is Air Alabama. They run morning and afternoon flights throughout the year (by reservation). They also offer hot air balloon pilot training and certification, as well as on-balloon advertising. Flights typically take off just after sunrise or two hours before sunset. A pilot and up to three passengers fly for about an hour. Family members and friends often join in, following the balloon by car.

Launches in Birmingham, as in all locations, take wind direction into account. Flying too near the Birmingham International Airport's terminal control area is an issue, Sidney says. Flights can be done in that area, but only if the pilot is in contact with the tower using a transponder, a device that renders the balloon visible on radar.

Each year, the city of Decatur hosts the Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic, where more than 60 balloon teams from around the nation gather to observe each balloon's design and race. It is one of the largest free balloon festivals in the Southeast. This year's festival takes place Saturday and Sunday, May 23 and 24. For the fifth year, the Gulf Coast will host its Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival held Father's Day weekend, Friday through Sunday, June 1921. —C.C.

Air Alabama, 567-9800, Flights cost $200 per passenger. Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic, 800-524-6181, Held at Point Mallard Park on Memorial Day weekend, Saturday and Sunday, May 23 and 24, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The festival includes balloon races, "glows," kite flying, car shows, arts and crafts, musical entertainment, a children's area, and a food court.

For information on the Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival visit, contact the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce, 251-943-3291 or

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