Inflation of DaVinci Transamerica in Tillamook, Oregon. Vera Simons (pilot) and Dr. Fred Hyde (copilot) look on.
A careful log was kept of the Da Vinci Transamerica flight. The balloonists noted the date and time, location (including latitude and longitude), mean altitude above sea level (MSL), and remarks.
The last page of the flight log for the DaVinci Transamerica flight. Note the last entry, when the balloon was forced down by the storm.
The crew of the DaVinci II flight: Jimmie Craig, Vera Simons, and Rudy Englemann, which took place in 1974.
An equipment test is made by the Project da Vinci crew and technicians before launching the 70-foot helium-filled balloon on the first da Vinci flight in 1974. The square, two-tier gondola was designed by Vera Simons. The top tier was used for work and piloting. The lower tier was used for storage, batteries, sleeping bags, etc.
The crew of daVinci Transamerica: top row (left to right) Vera Simons, Rudy Engelmann, bottom row (left to right) Randy Birch, and Fred Hyde. The flight was sponsored by 7-Up.
The da Vinci Transamerica flight over Kansas, 1979.
Afloat in the dirty air - the Transamerica flight.
Da Vinci Transamerica was launched from Tillamook, Oregon on September 26, 1979.
The Transamerica was forced down in Lima, Ohio, because of a storm. It stayed aloft for 133 hours.
A lengthy balloon flight requires a lot of preparation. This is the equipment list for the Transamerica flight in 1979.
The weight of everything that is carried on a balloon flight must be known.
Vera Simons and the Da Vinci Balloon Project
No woman played a more important role in balloon development and exploration than Vera Simons. Born in Detroit, Michigan, she married Otto Winzen, whom she met through the aeronaut Jean Piccard. Vera borrowed money from her parents to help Otto establish Winzen Research, one of the world's first plastic balloon companies, and held two-thirds ownership of the company.
Vera excelled at running the factory. She supervised the personnel and trained them to handle polyethylene and build giant balloons. She constantly improved construction techniques and redesigned the envelopes themselves. During her decade with Winzen Research, she obtained four patents and established herself as the finest plastic balloon builder in the world.
Vera was very proud of the "balloon girls" she trained. They made very few mistakes during balloon construction and none was ever fired for negligence. The company had good training methods, frequent task rotation, and liberal rest periods. There also was a strong sense of accomplishment. Whenever a Winzen balloon was launched, Vera made sure the team that had built the balloon saw the liftoff. "To see what you've made come alive," Vera would say, "that's pretty damned exciting."
A central figure in planning and executing the series of Air Force and Navy manned research flights of the 1950s and 1960s, Vera divorced Otto Winzen during the Manhigh III project. Vera sold her interest in Winzen Research and enrolled in art school in Washington, D.C. Two years later she married another recently divorced balloonist, David Simons.
By then, she was already an accomplished balloonist. Having earned her gas-balloon pilot's license in 1957, she represented the United States at the 30th Annual International Gas Balloon Races in Holland, where she received a gold medal for her contributions to balloon research.
By the early 1970s, having made a name for herself in international art circles, Vera Simons conceived a project that would combine her two loves—art and ballooning. In 1972, following an exhibit of her work in Amsterdam, she began planning a series of balloon flights she called Da Vinci that combined science and original kinetic art. Simons worked with Dr. Rudolf J. Englemann, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist and former Air Force meteorologist, and received funds from the National Geographic Society, Atomic Energy Commission, private companies, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Simons spent two years designing and supervising the construction of a two-decker fiberglass gondola and polyethylene balloon. An authority on migration of lower-level atmospheric pollutants, Englemann assembled a package of experiments from 25 universities.
The first Da Vinci flight was a 12-hour nighttime flight from Las Cruces to Wagon Mound, New Mexico, in November 1974. The flight collected detailed temperature and airflow data. The second flight, from St. Louis, Missouri, to Griffin, Indiana, in the summer of 1976, gathered data on the mix and movement of urban air pollutants while Simons photographed landscape and cloud images. She sought to use the unique perspective from the balloon to gather landscape and cloud images to be used in producing works of art. She was also anxious to explore the potential of a balloon playing colored lights on the clouds and the ground to create artistic effects.
After another flight from St. Louis, Simons and Engelmann began preparing for their final flight, the Da Vinci Transamerica. The 11-story balloon and split-level gondola were to carry Simons, Engelmann, flight surgeon Fred Hyde, and NBC cameraman Randy Birch across the continental United States for a new overland distance record. The 216,000-cubic-foot helium balloon lifted off a few miles from the shore of the Pacific Ocean in Oregon on September 26, 1979. As the balloon rose above the mountains of the Oregon Coast range, Vera dropped tiny tetrahedron balloons carrying Douglas fir seedlings into cleared areas. As Da Vinci drifted eastward, she took time-lapse photographs, made sound recording, and used mirrors to create special lighting effects for spectators on the ground. As she said, "I like the connection with people on the ground versus the balloon, establishing this dialogue cross-country."
A storm forced the balloon down short of its Norfolk, Virginia, goal, although it set a new overland distance record of 2,003 miles (3,223 kilometers). During the rough landing, one of the heavy NBC cameras used to capture images for the "Today Show" tore loose and broke Simon's left leg in three places.
In 1984, Simons launched another flight, Project Aeolus, in which three plastic balloons, lit from within and connected by gracefully looping strings of lights, were launched simultaneously into the nighttime New Mexico sky. She piloted one of the balloons; another pilot was Joseph Kittinger.
Simons "added another element, an alternate sensibility, to the business of exploring the atmosphere," as Craig Ryan noted. "I feel pretty good," she says, "about the fact that I have been able to use the technology that I learned, and the various facets of it, and put it into what I really care about….I thought all those years running a balloon factory would be lost as far as my art career was concerned. But they weren't."
"Balloonists Forced Down by Storm in Northwest Ohio, " Washington Post, Oct. 2, 1979.
Crouch, Tom D. The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.
Engelmann, Rudolf J. and Simons, Vera.'Laboratory in a Dirty Sky.'National Geographic, 150 (November 1976): 616-620.
Ryan, Craig. The Pre-Astronauts: Manned Ballooning on the Threshold of Space, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.