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Saturday, September 21, 2013

BALLOONING | Sept. 21–"Free Life" Ends (Updated Mar. 26, 2016)

The lift-off party for the "Free Life" balloon, 1970. That's Accabonac Harbor in the background.
This day in 1970, an attempt to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air Roziere balloon was abandoned by the balloonist team of three. They announced on a radio transmission to the Gander, Newfoundland air- traffic-control center that they were ditching the balloon.

A week-long search by multiple teams found pieces of the ditched balloon but no trace of the bailed-out balloonists, who were actress Pamela Brown, 28 (daughter of Kentucky Congressman John Y. Brown Sr. and sister of Kentucky Fried Chicken CEO John Y. Brown, Jr.), her husband Rodney Anderson, 32, and English balloonist Malcolm Brighton, 32. It was Brighton's 100th balloon ascent, and, of course, his last.

"The Free Life" balloon was four years in planning. The gondola and contents were assembled at a home on Springs Fireplace Road near Old Stone Highway that now has the number 771 and is where Alice and I stay in the summertime, so it makes this a personal story. The gondola and balloon were then moved on a makeshift cart to George Sid Miller's horse farm, and the balloon took off on September 20, 1970 with 1,500 well-wishers, as shown in the photo at top.

A one-hour movie about the project was prepared by LTV (#17218) and in honor of the lost trio, my wife Alice and I watched it this evening. It has comments from many people in the East Hampton community, including Willem De Kooning and Clarence Barnes, who ran the Barnes store near to assembly site and provided food for the crew assembling the balloon. Pamela's father, Congressman Brown, has an appearance in which he says that the balloon trip would be a gamble, but then so was KFC, her brother's successful investment.

Book about the attempt to cross the
Atlantic in a balloon.
On the northwest side of Ashawagh Hall – on the green where Old Stone Highway divides as it meets Springs Fireplace Road – a tree was planted in memory of the balloonists, with a plaque honoring "The Free Life".  Ashawagh is an Indian word meaning "where two roads come together".

Anthony Smith wrote a book, The Free Life, about the aborted flight. The cover is shown at left. The book suggests, with hindsight, that the 1,500 well-wishers made it difficult for the balloonists to stop the take-off in light of a tear in the balloon.

The book also stresses that while Malcolm Brighton had made 99 prior balloon flights, his substitution for the previous navigator – who withdrew with little notice – meant that much of the knowledge acquired in the four years of preparation was not on hand as the green light was given to the departure.

The first American-based balloon aeronaut was Charles Durant, who went aloft from Battery Park in Manhattan in 1830 - 140 years earlier – amidst a carnival-like send-off similar to the one in East Hampton. Durant had a modest objective – 25 miles to Perth Amboy – and he was successful.

Second Failed Attempt to Cross the Atlantic

The Anderson-Brighton attempt was achieved eight years after the "Double Eagle II" balloon failed to complete the voyage across the Atlantic. This balloon was named after the $20 gold coin last minted in the early days of the FDR administration when Will Woodin of New York City and East Hampton was Secretary of the Treasury.

Genie Henderson, Kentucky-childhood friend of Pamela
Brown, showing the balloon lifting off on the 40th
anniversary of the launch of "The Free Life", 2010.
As mentioned, Pamela Brown was the daughter of a long-time state legislator, Speaker of the state assembly and one-term Kentucky Congressman Brown.

Her brother John Y. Brown Jr. purchased Kentucky Fried Chicken from Colonel Harlan Sanders in 1964 and turned it into a world-wide brand at a huge profit in 1971.

He went on to be nominated twice by the Democratic Party for Governor of Kentucky, and was its Governor from 1979 to 1983. He remarried and named another daughter Pamela Ashley Brown, who became a successful television anchor. His son John Brown III was Kentucky Secretary of State from 1996 to 2004.

Genie Henderson, childhood friend of the Pamela Brown who perished, keeps the memory of "The Free Life" flight alive. Former President of LTV, the East Hampton television station, her duties today include maintaining the valuable library of archival tapes and DVDs of the station.

A tree was planted in front of Ashawagh in memory of "The Free Life", with a plaque in front of the tree. On September 20, 2015 another commemoration of the event was held, led by Genie Henderson, and a video was made for LTV. The next big anniversary of the balloon attempt will be the 50th, on September 21, 2020, the month after the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which recognized the right of women to vote.

Related Post: Charles Durant