By People Staff
March 18, 1974 12:00 PM

When Tom Gatch packed himself inside his six-foot spherical gondola Light Heart, suspended beneath a cluster of helium-filled balloons, and set off east from Harrisburg, Pa., he hadn’t the slightest idea whether he would come down in Europe or in Africa. So he carried on board with him the flags of a dozen countries to honor the landing site of the first manned balloon crossing of the Atlantic Ocean ever.

The very uncertainty of Gatch’s destination reflects a certain mystery in his motives for undertaking such a dangerous voyage. Gatch himself was of little help. “We can and must use our planet’s cheapest and most abundant sources of energy—wind, water and sun,” he intoned.

“He was no daredevil type,” Gatch’s niece Jocklyn Armstrong agreed. “He did it for scientific reasons, to prove it was possible.” The word “adventuresome” comes to Gatch’s sister, Mrs. Eleanor Hoaglan. But at the Pentagon, where the 48-year-old reserve colonel worked as a civilian, he was thought of as “level-headed” and “disciplined.” He was also brave. He had a Bronze Star from Korea to prove it.

Colonel Bill Pietsch, a close colleague, observes that “Tom was fascinated with the forces of nature—windstorms, floods, tornadoes—how powerful they can be, making man feel puny and insignificant. The idea of harnessing these forces for the benefit of man intrigued him.”

A genial bachelor who also sought solitude, Gatch was a novelist, a playwright, a man with a fondness for singing musical comedies and a fierce physical-fitness buff. In the end, his family and friends fall back on the familiar explanation: “You knew he was going to do it—like climbing the mountain, because it was there.”

His balloon was last seen southwest of the Azores. Now almost a month has gone by. Tom Gatch was carrying his reasons for the voyage with him toward an unknown destination.