On their 3,100-mile skyborne odyssey from the Golden Gate Bridge to a Canadian meadow on the other side of the continent, they soared thousands of feet above the snow-covered Rockies, enduring freezing temperatures inside the gondola and air so thin they had to take oxygen continually. They skirted thunderheads in Wyoming and battled winds that blew them 1,100 miles north of their hoped-for destination of Kitty Hawk, N.C. But Maxie Anderson, 45, and son Kris, 23, achieved their goal nonetheless, successfully completing the first nonstop balloon crossing of North America.
The hazards of the voyage were matched by a hair-raising landing. Adrift in high winds in their craft, the Kitty Hawk, the Andersons searched desperately for a landing site in the thick woods of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. Ready to ditch in the nearby St. Lawrence River if necessary, they finally spotted a clearing and descended, aided by prop wash from a protective Canadian armed forces helicopter. The journey ended with a bang when Kris set off a small explosive charge that freed the gondola from the 75-foot helium bag that had held it aloft. The balloonists then plummeted 14 feet to earth after nearly 100 hours in the air. For Maxie, the terrain was familiar: In 1978 he and two crewmates aboard the balloon Double Eagle II had flown by the Gaspé on the first leg of their historic transatlantic crossing. Now, as then, the sight was a welcome one. “We cycled from the heights of elation to the depths of depression every day,” said Maxie, a millionaire mining company president from Albuquerque, N.Mex. “To me and Kris it was an adventure. I think it tests your mettle.” Kris agreed, but felt his mettle had been tested sufficiently. “Once was enough,” he said. “I don’t know why Father keeps going on these voyages.” Countered Maxie, who had lost three out of four backgammon games to his son while aloft, “Man always has a dream. I’m sure I’ll think of something else to try.”