Remembering the Free Life Balloon: A Perfect Launch, Followed by Tragedy 30 Hours Later

By Genie Chipps Henderson (Originally published Sept. 23, 2010)
Early in the morning on Sept. 20, 1970, the Free Life balloon was readied for an ill-fated attempt to be the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Jack Graves

Sept. 20, 1970, was a perfect day. Sunny, deep blue skies, an easterly breeze.

Hundreds of people were gathered in a field in Springs to witness the launch of a seven-story-tall hot air balloon about to embark on a flight across the Atlantic Ocean. If it succeeded it would be the first such attempt to do so. The name of the balloon was the Free Life.

The balloonists were perfectly cast in their roles — young, attractive, and bursting with anticipation for their great adventure. For the English pilot, Malcolm Brighton, this would be his 100th ascent. The navigator, Rod Anderson, had originally conceived of the idea and brought it to fruition over four years of planning. His wife, Pamela Brown, would be the chronicler and on-board photographer. Her family had financed the better part of the venture.

Rod and Pam came to East Hampton from New York looking for a launch site in the early spring. Via talks with townspeople and Town Hall they met George Sid Miller of Springs, who granted them permission to use his field. Soon the Springs community embraced the personable couple and their fantastic idea as their own.

Housing, food, volunteer brawn, and mechanical expertise were offered gratis. All summer long the community buzzed with nothing else but the Free Life.

By September, the details (there were many), the delays (quite a few) were all somehow surmounted and the launch date was set for Sunday morning at dawn. People came from all over the East End to watch the hours of inflation, in itself a spectacular sight. A large yellow gondola kitted out with food, ballast, radio and navigational equipment, emergency beacons, and a raft was attached.

All that was needed now was a favorable wind. Dawn came. The wind was wrong. The crowd waited. Frisbees and picnics came out. The local press and national TV networks were there in force, adding to the excitement. At about noon the wind shifted to the east, champagne was uncorked, American and British flags were unfurled in the rigging, and the three balloonists climbed into the gondola.

The Springs volunteers, who had never done anything like this before, were instructed to lean heavily on the gondola’s rim while others released the tethers.

At last came Brighton’s shout to “Let go!” The giant orange-and-white Free Life soared up into the spotless blue sky over Accabonac Harbor. A perfect launch.

Laughing, cheering, and crying, we all watched the sight in awe. Thirty hours later, the Free Life went down in a storm somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland.

After radioing an SOS, Brighton signed off to prepare for landing on water. It was 7 p.m. over a turbulent sea. Nothing was ever heard from the balloon again — the three adventurers were lost without a trace.

In 1971 friends and families gathered at Ashawagh Hall to plant a tree and mount a plaque. In 1972 a film premiered at Guild Hall documenting the launch. There were interviews with Clarence and Dorothy Barnes of Barnes Store, who had supplied all the food; Jean Stafford, who lived directly across from the field; the electricians, carpenters, and mechanics who lent a hand, the volunteer firemen who had helped at liftoff, even Willem de Kooning, who had bicycled over on many occasions.

In 1995 Anthony Smith, a noted English science and travel writer, and mentor to Malcolm Brighton, himself a balloonist, published “The Free Life,” weaving that story around other improbable and daring exploits. In 1998 the teachers at the Springs School mounted a 10- foot-tall replica of the balloon as their entry in the town’s 350th anniversary parade.

Years later I stumbled quite by accident on a passage in Peter Matthiessen’s 1976 book “The Snow Leopard,” finding it perhaps the most poignant reminiscence of all. He wrote: “Liberation, freedom — unaccountably I think about a girl I talked to once in a marinesupply store where she was buying rope, just a few years ago. The next day, with her young husband and a British companion, she rose in a balloon from the Long Island farmland, and headed eastward, bound for England over the Atlantic Ocean. None of the three was ever seen again. At this moment I feel moved, not by the disappearance of that girl (which was no tragedy, only a brave essay that was lost) but by the name of their great adventure — the Free Life Balloon.” Forty years later, I think of “that girl,” who was my closest childhood friend, I think of that heady summer in Springs as we prepared for the flight, not knowing then that Springs would eventually become my home — but most of all, this year and every year, I remember my friends and their great adventure — the Free Life balloon.

Genie Chipps Henderson is a writer and is the archivist at LTV. She and her husband, Bill Henderson, have lived in Springs for the past 30 years.

Exuberant children chased after the Free Life balloon as it lifted off from George Sid Miller's field. Rod Anderson, with cigar, Malcolm Brighton, and Pamela Brown died when the balloon crashed into the Atlantic a little more than a day later.Jack Graves