How a Spy Balloon Gets From Montana to South Carolina

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  • Balloons can maneuver because air moves in different directions at different altitudes.
  • To go a certain direction, you have to raise or lower your balloon until you find a wind that is going your way.
  • This is timely stuff considering we’re apparently under attack by a Chinese “weather balloon” in Montana (so they say).

    Many, many years ago here at Autoweek we had an intern named Curt Catallo. He was a racing aspirant who thought working here would advance his career on the track. That’s another story. But his dad, a saint of a man, was named Clarence “Chili” Catallo. Chili Catallo’s Little Deuce Coupe was the one on the cover of the Beach Boys album of the same name. The car was also on the cover of the July 1961 Hot Rod magazine. That’s also another story. Turned out that hot rodder Chili Catallo was—how timely considering today’s news—an avid balloonist. With all this news about a certain Chinese spy balloon currently terrifying cattle in Montana, maybe the following information will be helpful to you.

    Chili Catallo in the Silver Sapphire.

    So 30 something years ago, one thing led to another, yadda yadda yadda and we were lifting off the ground in one of Chili Catallo’s hot air balloons.

    This was only moderately terrifying, mostly because the ropes attaching the balloon to the wicker basket looked so terrifyingly thin. There were four of us in this balloon, one of two hot air balloons Chili Catallo owned. Chili piloted one and Curt and I and another friend were in one piloted by what I was told was the Swedish balloon champion. I had no idea Sweden even had balloon champions.

    So there we were, floating placidly over southeastern Michigan when I asked the Swedish balloon champion how we were supposed to steer this thing. (Warning: This next part is gross!) He expectorated over the side and said, “Look.” Kinda grossed out, I looked. You could see the foul loogie shifting direction as it plummeted: north, south, east, then west.

    Turns out the air moves around in different directions at different altitudes. If you want to go west, you raise or lower your balloon until you’re at an altitude where the wind is blowing west. To go south, you raise or lower it to go south. While it’s harder to see what the air above you is doing, you can assume that it’s also going in different directions at different altitudes, so as you rise you keep an eye on which way you’re going.

    Hot Rod

    If you think the controls on your Cessna respond slowly, multiply that by about 10x to grasp balloon controlling. I was glad we had the Swedish balloon champion at the helm of our craft.

    Now, clearly, the Chinese craft floating all through the news lately is not a hot air balloon. It’s likely filled with helium. But the same principle applies. Assuming it has any kind of controls onboard, it likely has an apparatus to increase and decrease the volume of helium in the balloon, compressing it back into a resevoir to go down and releasing it back into the top part to go up. That’s just a wild guess.

    For our part, after much plotting and hocking we wound up landing at Waterford Hills race track, which the management was not happy about but what could they do?

    So there you go, your little slice of information you might not have already known. (I haven’t heard anyone say anything about it during the day’s news coverage, so I figured you’d want to know.) At some later date I’ll tell you about Chili Catallo’s amphibious plane license. That’s another story.

    Mark Vaughn grew up in a Ford family and spent many hours holding a trouble light over a straight-six miraculously fed by a single-barrel carburetor while his father cursed Ford, all its products and everyone who ever worked there.

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