On the morning of August 11, 1978, a crowd of 8,000 people gathered in a potato field in Maine’s Aroostook County. Over several hours, a pile of nylon was inflated with helium until the giant silver balloon took shape. Three men loaded supplies and foodstuffs—mostly hot dogs and sardines (allegedly)—into the gondola, unloaded their anchors, and were lifted off into the late-summer sky. The next time they touched ground would be in a barley field just outside Paris, making their journey the first successful transatlantic balloon voyage. Today, a small roadside park featuring a steel replica of the famed balloon now sits at the site of its departure in Presque Isle.
While the Double Eagle II’s flight was the first successful voyage of its kind, it was far from the first attempt. Transatlantic voyages became a fever dream for aviation adventurers as soon as human flight became possible. Between 1859 and 1978, over a dozen unsuccessful transatlantic balloon flights led to the deaths of at least seven balloonists—some of whom were never found. In fact, Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson (two of the Double Eagle II’s pilots) attempted to cross in 1977 but were stymied by foul weather and forced to abandon their gondola off the coast of Iceland. Abruzzo would spend months recovering from frostbite.
The following year, with the addition of a third pilot—Larry Newman—the trio successfully traveled 3,200 miles over the course of 137 hours to complete the voyage. After reaching England, they made another ambitious choice to float to the commune of Le Bourget, France, where Charles Lindbergh had landed after crossing the Atlantic solo in 1927. French citizens on the ground chased the balloon down by car, clamoring to meet Abruzzo, Anderson, and Newman at their final landing spot to join film crews, photographers, and the pilots’ wives.
The land on which the Double Eagle II Balloon Site park sits was donated by the potato farmer who rented the pilots space for that fateful day in 1978. A steel and tin replica of the Double Eagle II rests atop a commemorative brick foundation flanked by two flag poles, which typically fly both French and U.S. flags. The gondola itself is on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
Aside from the groundbreaking nature of its voyage, the Double Eagle II held a record for time spent aloft in a balloon. The record wasn’t broken until 2015 after a crew soared for 160 hours over the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Mexico’s Baja coast. In honor of the trio that lifted off a potato farm in northern Maine, the Baja-bound balloon was named Two Eagles.
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