Thirty years since historic solo balloon flight of Col. Kittinger

Trans-Atlantic adventure among former reporter’s biggest stories

By Brenda Ketch
Special to the Aroostook Republican

    The night of Sept. 14, 1984, remains in my memories as one of the most exciting and memorable nights of my career as a news reporter and photographer. I was working for The Aroostook Republican & News at that time, and my assignment was to photograph the beginning of Col. Joseph W. Kittinger’s trans-Atlantic balloon flight from Caribou. Kittinger had hopes of becoming the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in a helium-filled balloon. As we know, he succeeded and set a world record for the longest distance flown in a helium balloon. He landed in Montenotte, Italy, 86 hours later.

Along with the newspaper’s editor, Elizabeth Chapman, we arrived at the launch site that was located in a small field just outside of town several hours before the time of the launch. She and I had met Kittinger earlier that summer when he and his flight crew had been in town to further plans and preparations for his September flight, and were anxious for his arrival to meet him once again. There were people already gathering around the field.
Kittinger’s flight crew was at the site and working on the preparations for the evening liftoff. We watched the work as it progressed throughout the afternoon, and walked around talking with crew members when available, and others who had also arrived early to observe the activities.
There were photographers, both amateur and professional, as well as local and national media, arriving and were seen everywhere throughout the field and around the gondola. We saw Kittinger when he arrived, and we watched intently as he crossed the field speaking to many on the way to his gondola, hoping he would look our way. He was carrying a single red rose, presumably presented to him by an admirer at the site. Our hopes diminished as he passed by us looking toward his gondola near the edge of the woods. He was heading to his gondola.
It was dusk, and as the nighttime approached, floodlights lit up the area around the gondola. We watched as the crew spread out the balloon’s silver and black envelope across the field. It was shortly after, the inflation began.
Loaded with two cameras, flash attachments, and pockets overfilled with film, we gathered near the balloon’s gondola, hoping for a good view of the ascension since darkness was moving in. It was beginning to get dark when the balloon’s envelope began to rise and grow larger and larger, looking massive, as it rose up toward the sky.
It was mesmerizing to watch in anticipation of seeing this 10-story high balloon completely inflated and ready for liftoff. Volunteers were holding thick ropes that were attached to the balloon in order to keep the gondola grounded. That looked like a struggle at times for them to keep it steady. It was amazing to watch, and very interesting to see this part of the preparations.

There were about 1,000 people gathered throughout the field and along the main road in cars lined up alongside the road, waiting for the ascension. You could feel the excitement building as the time for the takeoff approached. Flight crew members were scurrying here and there, news media, and TV cameras were moving in and quickly finding prime positions for photographs. Soon, lights from the cameras were brightly focused right on Kittinger, and flashes were starting to explode everywhere. It was the next few moments that every photographer wanted to catch. Picture the scene.
It was close to the time for the pilot to begin his journey. Kittinger climbed in to his gondola, as his girlfriend, now his wife, Sherry, stood nearby. A prayer was said by local clergymen, a champagne toast was made, and Kittinger said his goodbyes to Sherry and his flight crew. He was ready to go. This was a critical time for me, trying to squeeze closer to the gondola hoping to capture a good photo of the ascension for the newspaper. There were people everywhere, and they were wanting the same thing.
Kittinger’s gondola slowly started to ascend up into the dark sky while the crowd below sang, “God Bless America,” and Bob Snow, one of the flight’s major backers and Kittinger’s ballooning partner, played his alpine hunting horn. Before Kittinger disappeared into the darkness of the starlit sky, he looked down at everyone, and waved his goodbyes. His journey had begun. It was 8:20 p.m.
A retired Air Force colonel having served in Vietnam as a fighter pilot, Kittinger was to soon realize his 30-year dream. On Sept. 18, 1984, he landed safely in Montenotte, Italy, covering 3,543 miles in 86 hours, or 3.5 days. What wonderful news, and how happy and proud everyone in our small community felt after hearing Kittinger succeeded and achieved his goal. And to think, it all started here, in Caribou, Maine.
Now it was time for Liz and I to get to work. Since it was a Friday evening and my pockets bulged with rolls and rolls of black and white film, I was anxious to get the films developed and printed for next week’s edition, because it was always a worry that my pictures wouldn’t develop properly. Always, there were concerns of whether the film was properly installed in the camera, or were the camera settings set right for good pictures. Night time is especially difficult to achieve decent pictures.
We didn’t have the digital cameras to work with back then. Our films had to be developed and then the pictures printed from the developed negatives in darkrooms. We did our work that weekend, and achieved our goal. Elizabeth had an important news story written, and I had the photographs ready for publication. Not only did we have the opportunity to meet and talk with an American hero, and witness a historic event that day, but the opportunity to report it as well. It was a good edition, and we were proud of our work.
Since that historic flight, I’ve always kept up with my interests in the happenings of Joe and Sherry Kittinger. When they have been in town for anniversary celebrations of his historic flight, I, along with my husband, Alton, and daughter, Vickie, have attended all of the observances. My brother, Jerry Drake, also a pilot, was operator of the Caribou Municipal Airport at the time the balloon flight plans began at the airport, thus a friendship developed between the Kittingers and Jerry and his wife, Betty.
My family and I feel very honored for the opportunities we’ve had to become better acquainted with the Kittingers as well. We’ve also shared a few special meals with them at my brother’s home.
I’ve been retired from the newspaper over 18 years now, and know I’ll always remember that night 30 years ago, standing in that small field in the dark of night, looking up at the stars and marveling at what I just witnessed.
  Editor’s note: The current newspaper staff appreciates Brenda’s willingness to step in again and meet an important deadline. Her contributions to this newspaper in the past and today go far in recording Caribou’s rich history.