Bobby Berger says he’s sure he can make it across the Atlantic to Paris in a balloon. Other balloonologists think he’s full of helium.
Two and a half years ago the 46-year-old electrical engineer took a leave of absence from his job at the University of Pennsylvania to pursue his dreams of flight. “I want to show it’s still possible for one lone American to affect the destiny of mankind,” says Berger, who, undaunted by the disappearance of balloonist Thomas Gatch last March, calls his 2,480-pound helium balloon “The Spirit of Man.”
Berger, a former navy flier, can’t seem to get his project off the ground. First officials in hometown Philadelphia, wary of possible dangers to the city, insisted he buy a $1 million insurance policy. Then, the Phillies baseball team objected to his taking off from Veterans’ Stadium because it would interfere with their games. Now Berger is broke. “If only some Queen Isabella would hock her jewels to stake me,” he says.
If Berger gets off the ground, his problems will only begin. Since the atmosphere inside his capped gondola is an environment of pure oxygen, Berger must worry about the real possibility of flash fires at 36,000 feet. For heat, therefore, he is using pressurized beer cans filled with water heated to 240 degrees. And he must eat only mild foods because, he muses, “even flatulence can be fatal.”