Remembering The Free Life 50 Years Later

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The Free Life balloon launch in Springs. September 20, 1970. Courtesy LTV.

By Bryan Boyhan

They would float up the coast to Maine. There, they would catch the westerlies that would blow them the 2,500 miles to Europe. Up there, in the beauty and the silence, you hear the true noise of the sea coming up at you.

There was plenty of food on board, stocked with salamis and cheeses — fatty food to keep them warm and filled — water, Champagne for celebrating, of course, plus some emergency supplies. But it turns out the crew of The Free Life, a seven-story high Roziére balloon that lifted off from a field in Springs 50 years ago this week, would not need it. About 30 hours after leaving the East End of Long Island, the ship would bail and ditch in the chilled and storm-roiled waters of the north Atlantic. The crew of three was lost and only fragments of their ship were ever found.

Buoyed as much by hope and high spirits as it was by hot air and helium gas, The Free Life is a milestone in the lives of many people from Springs and the South Fork; and the dozens who volunteered over one long summer to build a dream, and the hundreds more who helped launch it from Sid Miller’s farm on a brilliant blue Saturday afternoon count it as something to mark time, like a world’s fair, or a hurricane, or the death of president. They all wanted to be part of the first team to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon, a dream likely conjured by adventurers since ballooning began in the late 1700s.

It was an improbable trio who crewed The Free Life, a young and attractive husband and wife who had no previous interest or experience with ballooning. And a charismatic pilot brought over from England as an 11th hour fill-in for the team’s original pilot, who resigned just a month before the planned launch.

British aeronaut Malcolm Brighton and Pamela Brown in the gondola of The Free Life shortly before launch. Courtesy Genie Chipps Henderson/LTV.

They were Pamela Brown, 28, an actress and the daughter of powerful Kentucky politician and one-term congressman John Young Brown Sr.

Pamela’s husband, Rodney Anderson, 32, a director of admissions for New York University and, recently then, a commodities broker on Wall Street.

And Malcolm Brighton, also 32, a veteran aeronaut for whom the ill-fated and brief trip in The Free Life was to be his 100th flight in a balloon.

Together they brought an ephemeral, if not illogical, idea to critical mass and, over the course of a magical summer, swept a community under their spell.

Sometimes A Great Notion

“It was Rod who got the bug first,” said Genie Chipps Henderson. A close friend of Brown and Anderson, who came to stay and work with them in Springs that summer, she is former president and currently archivist at LTV Studios, which will broadcast a program about The Free Life this Sunday.

Henderson and Brown were friends growing up in Kentucky, and were in their 20s when they came together to New York City.

“We were running around with young aspiring whatevers,” Henderson laughed during a recent interview. Brown met Anderson — “they were quite the young and in love couple,” Henderson remembers — and were soon married.

He had married into a prominent family, which suited his desire to improve his social standing, according to several reports. But still there were challenges.

“He married into the Brown family of Kentucky,” said Henderson pointedly. Pamela’s father, John Y. Brown Sr., was a successful attorney who served for nearly three decades in the state house and one term in the House of Representatives. Her brother, John Y. Brown Jr., had bought a fried chicken business from Colonel Harland Sanders and turned it into Kentucky Fried Chicken, one of the most successful fast food operations in the country. He later would enter politics and become governor of Kentucky.

Artist Willem de Kooning, Pam Topham and Dee Topham holding The Free LIfe’s rope. Courtesy LTV.

“They’re politicians, they’re colorful people. They were very interesting people,” said Henderson. “I think Rod wanted to be a more interesting person than the director of admissions for New York University.”

In conversation one day, according to Henderson, a friend mentioned to Anderson that, interestingly, no one had ever successfully piloted a balloon across the Atlantic. It was a record yet to be set.

“And this really appealed to him,” said Henderson. “This … notion.”

So, said Henderson, Anderson, without any obvious previous interest or experience in it, began to investigate ballooning and calculating what it would take to ride the wind across to Europe; apparently unbeknownst to his new bride.

In the film about The Free Life, Pamela Brown explains in archival footage how she learned about her husband’s plan. One evening, Brown tells the interviewer, her husband tosses down on the table a pile of maps, with lines curving across the face of them.

“What do you think those are,” he asks her. She’s baffled, and so he tells her “they’re wind currents.” The listener can imagine Pamela Brown still perplexed.

“We can ride them across the ocean to France,” he says.

“Well,” Brown tells the interviewer, “that’s the craziest thing I ever heard of.”

It Was Better in East Hampton

The choice of Springs as the launch site appears to be more chance than careful planning, but it offered many of the qualities the team was looking for: access to New York City, flat terrain and close to the ocean.

“I don’t know if he had Springs in mind, but Rod looked at a map and said ‘Why not the tip of Long Island?’” recalled Henderson.

Anderson drove out to East Hampton in late winter 1970 to scout the territory and found himself at Town Hall and in a conversation with then-supervisor Bruce Collins, explaining what he and his wife hoped to accomplish.

According to Henderson, Collins told him, “Go out and see my friend George Sid Miller, he’s got a flat farm next to the water.”

While today you might not recognize the property, since trees have grown up and a house now sits in the field, in 1970, said Henderson, the property was “flat as a pancake” and had unobstructed access to Accabonac Harbor and open water beyond.

It was one of the few things that were going right for the team.

In the film, Pamela Brown notes that so much had gone wrong with the planning, which, since Rod Anderson first got his notion, they had spent much of the past four years doing. They had studied the logistics and science, applied themselves, even did a test run.

“Some accounts say they were crazy, they didn’t know what they were doing,” said Henderson. “Others gave them their due. This was an extraordinary attempt. They had put a lot of time and care and research into it.”

But the scheme probably cost much more than they had originally expected. Pamela’s father was one of the first to offer financing. In the film he says he had always “backed all my children if they had a crazy idea.” And the couple used whatever money they personally had available.

But soon they were selling off furniture and other valuables. Rod was a classically trained pianist, and they sold his piano. Pamela had taken up the harp, and that was sold as welI.n the film, Anderson explains to Brighton that they were already fully committed at $90,000 to the project. Henderson said the final total was probably closer to $150,000, if not higher.

And then they found something remarkable.

British aeronaut Malcolm Brighton working with volunteers on the gas burner to heat air for The Free Life. Courtesy of Genie Chipps Henderson/LTV.

With a launch site secured at “Uncle” Sid Miller’s farm — for that is what he was called — there were still a host of logistical challenges, not the least of which was where to live. One afternoon, Rod took himself to lunch at a cafe on Newtown Lane. Behind the counter was owner “Mom” VanDewater and the two fell into conversation. Rod told her the tale of The Free Life and casually mentioned that, while they had a place to launch, there was no place to live for the summer. According to Henderson, VanDewater told Anderson about a house she owned on Fireplace Road with a cottage out back that the couple was welcome to use.

By the time they arrived East Hampton, they had run out of resources, but were still determined to see the project through.

“Then it was all these people, saying I’ll do this for you, I’ll do that for you,” Brown says.

“Everything began to magically fall in place,” remembers Henderson.

Something For Springs

“Then the Barneses got wind of it,” Henderson remembers. Clarence and Dorothy Barnes owned Barnes Country Store and provided food and beverages for many of the volunteers and, importantly, got many of their friends interested in sharing their expertise.

“They provided the resources of Springs,” said Henderson. “They got the fire department to volunteer as ground crew and got all their friends involved.”

The film crew captures several scenes of men, and shouting tinged in Bonac and instructions being thrown out, chaotic in parts, but all with great and specific purpose: to repair a gas valve, load the 10-sided gondola onto a trailer, scour the field for anything that may puncture the fragile balloon.

In one scene, Joe Glanz, with evident pride, explains that he is filling collapsible water containers and the importance of filling them completely and correctly, with no air, to prevent them from rupturing. He later explains that he has helped teach Rod Anderson — who has taken on the job as the ship’s navigator — how to use a sextant. A couple of men fill sand bags and Buddy Talmage tinkers with the gas burner.

Andy Malone, who owned a body repair shop in Springs, got involved when somebody stopped by for a fiberglass patch kit to repair the gondola. He went down to have a look and tells the film’s cameraman that “it’s just kind of a fantastic thing, and I wanted to be part of it.” Later he is seen lending his weight to the crew that is holding the gondola of The Free Life in place before its launch.

Pam Topham was 23 and living either in East Hampton or Bridgehampton in the summer of 1970.

“I feel like the word just went out, you heard about it, they were looking for people to help out,” said Topham, who remembers driving up to Springs early in the summer for a “test blow-up.” She had attended a couple of meetings with the organizers and on one morning found herself with her sister, Dee, hanging onto a rope, holding down the balloon. Also holding on with them was artist Willem de Kooning. A photo shows them leaning back against the rope, straining to hold the unseen gondola to the ground. In the film, de Kooning tells the cameraman that “some of us helped make shelves in the gondola.”

“He would bike down regularly,” Henderson remembered about the famed abstract expressionist who had been a resident of the neighborhood for decades.

Rod Anderson with Champagne during The Free Life launch. Still image from LTV video. Courtesy TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA FILMS, INC..

“Springs is an outsider community,” Henderson said recently. “It gets the shortest shrift,” noting that, celebrated painters aside, the hamlet never got the attention or respect of neighboring East Hampton.

“People in Springs are very protective of it,” she said. “This was theirs, it was a Springs event, and they just adopted it as their own.”

The Free Life

Naming the balloon was a big deal and one of the first things Anderson wanted the team to decide.

It was “the notion of a free unbounded life, a balloon untethered, floating free wherever the wind takes it … and so on morphed into The Free Life,” said Henderson. “Once said, we all loved it.”

The Free Life was a Roziére-style balloon, a hybrid vessel that used two sources to control its elevation: an inner balloon filled with non-flammable helium and an outer balloon filled with hot air provided by an on-board burner. It’s an old technology, created in the 18th century, largely to allow longer flights, but has been used successfully in recent years. The first circumnavigation of the globe in a balloon, for example, was achieved in 1999 in a Roziére balloon crewed by adventurers Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones.

“It was really a brilliant concept,” said Henderson.

Brett King at age 10 during The Free Life launch. Courtesy Brett King.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but still Henderson levels some criticism about The Free Life and its ability to be up to the task.

Once committed, Anderson negotiated with Semich Balloons to build his dream. Semich was one of only two companies in the United States that built these types of balloons, said Henderson, and the other was tied up with the government.

“Nobody thought they were the greatest balloon builder, but it was the only choice,” she said.

“I’ve since found that the balloon was not big enough,” said Henderson, who has spent part of the past 50 years learning more about ballooning and keeping the story of The Free Life alive. “It needed to be a bigger balloon to sustain a flight across the Atlantic.”

She also said the gondola was really designed to come down on land.

“They didn’t really think they would come down in water and didn’t plan for it.”

The gondola was a 10-sided affair made of fiberglass with gunwales filled with ping pong balls, supposedly unsinkable according to Henderson.

“The thought of coming down in the ocean is terrifying,” she said. “I’ve been disturbed by the design for a long time.”

Even Brighton, who spent a week appraising the ship and the crew’s plans before committing to be the pilot in August had some reservations about the craft. Asked for his assessment, he notes his experience as an aeronaut, and observes, “I could have done better.”

Determined, Wisely or Not

Malcolm Brighton was a charming man. Stepping out of the chill dark on the morning of September 20, he wore an Irish knit wool cardigan as the sun broke over Montauk and began to light the field at Uncle Sid’s farm. He had stood to announce to the several

Rod Anderson right before launch. Courtesy Brett King.

hundred people who had waited through the night, anticipating a dawn launch, that the wind was not favorable and The Free Life would have to wait until it changed.

The man who preceded Brighton as skipper of The Free Life had worked with Rod Anderson and Pamela Brown for about a year, since the team ran a test flight in Idaho the previous summer in another Roziére balloon. That was before, quite suddenly, he had a change of heart. He and Anderson were frequently at loggerheads and, frankly, said Henderson, “Rod thought he was a coward.”

Brighton topped a list of potential replacement pilots Anderson had received from one of England’s most respected balloonists. In the first call Anderson placed to Brighton, to solicit his service on The Free Life, Anderson explains the previous captain “seemed to have had a nervous breakdown.”

“They were having such a problem with the original pilot,” Henderson remembers. “He was very cautious. He was not a risk taker.”

“Malcolm,” on the other hand, “was a risk taker. He never said no to anybody,” said Henderson.

Brighton loved new ideas; he was an adventurous spirit enough to match Anderson’s dream.

And, importantly, said Henderson, Brighton had always wanted to pilot a balloon across the Atlantic, but never had the funds.

The Free Life ready for take off. Courtesy Brett King.

On the morning of the day before the launch, the balloon and liners flowed out across Miller’s field like water. The nylon shell, that would become so familiar for the next 24 hours, was drawn out like an orange stream, as volunteers unfurled it across the green grass, under Brighton’s directions.

“We’ll lay it out this way, down wind,” he called out, jabbing the air with his pipe for emphasis.

One skin would slip into the other, and then they into the outside shell. Throughout the day, men slithered up inside the balloons to shimmy them into place. Then, as night approached, a chain of men lay head-to-toe up into the inner balloon, opening a channel that allowed the balloon to be filled with helium.

Throughout the night, big tanks of helium arrived to fill the balloon, and by dawn The Free Life floated, seven stories high, orange with yellow and white stripes, its name in a stylish sans serif font vertically along the side — all lower case as was popular at the turn of the decade — over the farm, with Accabonac Harbor in the distance.

They were ready, but the wind was not cooperating, said Brighton. It was coming out of the southeast, and they needed it to blow southwest, sending them up the coast toward Newfoundland. This would occur sometime after noon, Brighton predicted.

“They put their entire faith in him,” said Henderson of Brighton. “Malcolm was just a full-on exciting person. Everyone loved him.”

Which may explain why, just weeks before, Pamela Brown, who originally had no intention of going on the voyage, decided she wanted to join Brighton and her husband.

The Free Life leaves the ground, September 20, 1970. Courtesy Brett King.

“Pam didn’t want to be left behind,” said Henderson. “Her family had raised a lot of the funds for it, so, when Malcolm came on board, and he was so different, she wanted in.

“Why Malcolm said yes, I don’t know,” she added.

Henderson confesses she felt Brighton had his doubts about the ultimate success of them setting a record. Privately, Brighton had confided in other pilots who had warned him off the flight.

“He put in his mind that he was going to fly this,” said Henderson, “and yet, somehow, he knew it was never going to make it across the Atlantic.”

But pressure and expectations came from many directions. In the film, Pamela’s father — who some reports indicate had forbidden his daughter to go — dressed in suit and tie, his jaw set, and eyes locked on Anderson, tells his son-in-law: “Failure comes cheap, anyone can do that. Now I don’t wanna see either one of you, except for over there.”

Was there any discussion about backing out?

“No,” said Henderson, “all things were go. They already had to delay for one month. Rod said simply ‘We can’t put this thing in mothballs for another year.’ It had become an obsession in the end, and, in 50 years of retrospection, I think he thought, ‘Let’s just get it off the ground.’”

Plus, on this morning in Miller’s field, there were over a thousand people, many of them volunteers who had helped build it, come to see a dream realized.

Untethered

It was, by all accounts, an exciting and festive day. People brought their lunches and picnicked. There were dogs and children running across the field. It was like a country fair; the feeling was optimistic, joyful, with only a frisson of peril.

“It was like Oz,” recalled Pam Topham.

Brett King’s mother, who lived in Sag Harbor, was one of the people who had heard about the giant balloon and its extraordinary mission and decided to go to Springs at 5 a.m. to watch, along with her sister.

“They postponed it until the afternoon, so they came home and got me,” said King, who was 10 at the time.

He recalled looking into the gondola and, noting that it was wide open, thinking, “How are they going to do this? It didn’t look very safe.”

The artist Eric Ernst, whose family lived in Springs and who was a teenager at the time, recalls a scene reminiscent of the many “strange and whimsical” events local artists and writers had been cooking up for much of his youth; 1970 was, after all, for many just the tail end of the ’60s.

“It seemed to me that the grownups were all just big kids playing a game they were making up as they went along,” he said.

Around noon, Brighton got the news he was hoping for. The winds were going to shift, his meteorologist told him by phone, and within an hour or so conditions would be ideal for launch.

It was also at this time a storm was forming high above Labrador with winds pushing it inexorably south. Whether Brighton knew this in the hours before takeoff is unknown.

Under Brighton’s command, volunteers came to the side of the ship to steady her for takeoff. A dozen or more strong men, and maybe a strong woman or two, pressed themselves against the gondola and others held fast the lines that tethered The Free Life.

Clamoring on board over a set of aluminum steps, Rodney Anderson joined Brighton in the gondola; Brighton in shirt sleeves and a pair of khaki pants, Anderson in the yellow jumpsuit he wore daily during preparations.

“Malcolm wouldn’t wear the jumpsuit, said he was fine the way he was,” recalled Henderson, who said once they had reached altitude, the whole crew had cold weather gear, procured by Anderson from Abercrombie & Fitch, which had outfitted much of the supplies for the adventure.

The last to board was Pamela Brown, hardly missable in a bright red pantsuit, what Henderson called, “her fashion statement.”

“On the face of it, it looked like they were going to a party,” observed Henderson.

As the wind shifted and freshened, it tugged at the balloon, which occasionally lurched slightly north.

“I saw these three people get into the gondola, and everyone’s happy and excited,” recalled Brett King, “and then three days later you found out they died.

“It was one of those things,” said King, “like remembering Robert Kennedy being shot, that has stuck with me.”

The final moments were, unsurprisingly, full of chaos and unbridled good cheer. There was a hurried Champagne toast, the passing of some final instructions, back slaps and smiles. Dogs barked, children frolicked.

“You know, you look at any photograph of any other takeoff and nobody’s smiling; everyone is worried, or concerned,” said Henderson. “But in the photos and videos of The Free Life, Malcolm is on top of the world, smiling and waving. What was he thinking?”

The balloon and its gondola began its controlled skid across Uncle Sid’s field toward Accabonac Harbor. Bags of sand were emptied or tossed overboard, and a handful of men clung to the side of the ship or held fast to lines, waiting for orders to let go, skipping along as the wind pulled the vessel along with it to the sea. Children and grown men were running after it, whooping and cheering and waving, the gondola bumping the ground as it tried hard to free itself from the constraints of gravity.

The excitement was such, said Henderson, that if the crew suddenly said they needed one more to go along with them, “half the crowd would have joined.”

Then “Let go!” And suddenly you could see the space between; the gondola and the earth it left behind.

Pam Topham recalled the moment: “I remember it going out, it kind of swoops, then up … then … just away.”

The True Sound of the Sea

Thirty hours after takeoff and a largely uneventful flight, with the notable exception of the failure of a hot-air mechanism designed to control the balloon’s altitude at night, The Free Life confronted disaster.

The crew had navigated its ship on pretty much the exact course it had intended, and somewhere over the north Atlantic, northeast of Maine, Brighton contacted the tower at the airport in Gander, Newfoundland, for an update on weather conditions.

He was cautioned that a large storm with “heavy cumulus” was bearing down on their position from the north. The storm, ranging from 40-degrees west to 60-degrees west longitude, carried winds of 45 knots and torrential rain fell below it.

The Free Life’s overall plan was to fly at an altitude of between 8,000 and 10,000 feet on its cruise to Europe, and wasn’t prepared to go much higher. Today’s aviation laws require passengers in planes to have access to oxygen if traveling above 12,000 feet; The Free Life was not so equipped.

When Brighton questioned Gander about the height of the approaching storm, with perhaps a hope of sailing above it, he must have been shocked. The cold front and its clouds soared to 18,000 to 20,000 feet.

A moment later, Brighton informs Gander that he will be “going into the water.” He signs off saying that he was pursuing the “safest possible” landing, and requested “search and rescue.”

The seas below them were 15 to 20 feet, according to reports.

Henderson said she remembers learning that, in 1978, after 15 previous attempts going back to the late 1800s, including the ill-fated voyage of The Free Life, a team of three Americans finally succeeded in crossing the Atlantic in a balloon called The Double Eagle.

“I watched the celebration after they landed in France,” said Henderson. “They were given the same heroes’ welcome as Lindbergh. That just broke my heart.”

But the loss she feels after 50 years is far greater than simply a dream that didn’t come true.

After The Free Life ditched, and contact with the crew vanished, Henderson spent several weeks in Newfoundland with search crews trying to find some evidence of her friends. She went to shipyards and marinas talking with commercial fishermen about the balloon, showing them photos of the gondola.

She took one flight in a small search plane with psychic Peter Hurkos, hired by Pamela Brown’s family, who was famous for being consulted in the Manson murders. It was the family’s hope that Hurkos could lead them to their daughter.

“He said after that flight that, yes, two of them were alive, but one was dead,” said Henderson.

About two or three days after that “he pulled me aside,” said Henderson. “He told me, ‘They’re all dead, they should end this search.’”

The Browns continued investing in searches for their daughter, and hired a team of “mercenaries” who flew up a four-engine Pan Am plane from Florida to extend the search, with no results.

It should be noted that John Y. Brown Sr.’s wife divorced him after the searches proved fruitless.

Henderson took one more flight in a small plane out of Newfoundland. They were flying above the clouds on a particularly overcast day and the pilot was looking for a hole to get below.

He found one, recalls Henderson, who said they were flying lower and closer to the sea than the other planes had managed.

“When I looked down, and looked at that ocean, I kind of got it: you’re not going to find anybody there. It’s not like our ocean, that we see, with children frolicking,” she said.

In an interview last week, Henderson reflected on her younger self as she appeared in the opening minute of the documentary on The Free Life, where she tells the cameraman that the “beauty of the project is that it is not complicated,” that it is “new and exciting.”

“We were so full of strange hope,” she said last week. “At 28, you don’t believe people are going to die.”

This Sunday, September 20, at 5 p.m. on channel 20 in East Hampton, LTV will present a program about The Free Life, including footage from a documentary about the flight, and remembrances from many of the people who were there to witness the launch. The program will also be streamed at the same time through the website ltveh.org.

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