Robert Zirpolo’s Flying Machine

in Features

Design by Merritt Barnwell.

Most flying machines are undeniably cool. Jets, sleek and swift, play chicken with the ends of runways to earn their ascent. Helicopters, brash and insectile, thump the earth from their skids with blades that whir with lethal intent.

But humanity’s earliest aircraft is different. The hot air balloon has never been much more than a flammable fabric sack, connected to an equally flammable wicker basket, powered by a giant flamethrower and stuffed with passengers whose quarter- to mid-life crises aren’t severe enough to justify skydiving.

As instruments of travel, balloons leave a lot to be desired. They can’t even be steered—or, at least, they don’t come with flight sticks. Learning to fly a balloon begins, as all fun things do, with a physics lesson: hot air rises over cooler air. From their baskets, pilots manipulate the fire burning above their heads; igniting it elevates the balloon, while extinguishing it allows the craft to descend. As the balloon climbs and falls, it gets pushed around by wind patterns that split the sky like layers in a cake. Because open flames and gusts of wind are less-than-exact control mechanisms, balloons don’t have dedicated runways or helipads. Any flat patch of dirt or asphalt has to suffice as a landing spot.

That’s exactly how Robert Zirpolo, a veteran balloonist, likes it. He has flown tours over Connecticut for the past thirty-eight years, cultivating over that time a cloud-gray moustache that overwhelms his upper lip and short gray curls that poke out from the baseball cap covering his mostly-bald head. Zirpolo can fly single- and multi-engine planes, too, but he prefers balloons. He remembers what a pilot friend told him years ago: “The best part about ballooning is, it makes no sense at all.”

———

Perched in his wicker basket, Zirpolo reaches up toward an oxidized metal burner and flicks open its blast valve. Liquid propane shoots from fuel tanks nestled near his knees, through thick black tubes wrapped around arched bamboo rods, and into the burner’s vaporizing coils. A jet of dragon’s breath erupts into the October air, burning blue, white, and orange-yellow as it smothers the surrounding area in soupy heat.

Then Zirpolo shuts the valve, choking the flame. The 7 a.m. air reverts to a biting 38 degrees. His fiery engine, hotter than a thousand ovens, is ready; the rest of his balloon, scattered on the dewy grass of a private airfield in Bethlehem, Connecticut, is not.

Using a ripcord-powered industrial fan, Zirpolo forces one hundred and five thousand cubic feet of air into the massive nylon balloon, which is patterned with gold, scarlet, and dark-green arrowheads arranged against a blue background. The open-bottomed bundle of fabric grows from the ground like a bulbous blister, its ribbed surface rippling in the breeze. Once taut, it looks like a hundred-foot lightbulb turned on its side. Having tethered the balloon to the bamboo rods, he leans his basket over, aims the attached burner into the balloon’s mouth, and blasts fire into it until the entire apparatus stands upright.

Zirpolo has spent the past week studying weather reports, memorizing wind patterns, and staking out possible landing spots. He’s sent up a small test balloon that morning to see where the wind is actually blowing. And he’s watched less-experienced pilots—whom he calls “the real test balloons”—take off from an adjacent airstrip and disappear over the trees. He’s ready to launch.

In the sky, he’ll keep track of a fuel gauge, an altimeter, a vertical speed indicator, and a pyrometer, which measures the temperature inside the balloon. He’ll relay his location to his ground crew, and adjust the open flame above his head so that his balloon doesn’t drift toward a major city or out over the Atlantic. “Nothing is automated whatsoever, so your brain is constantly engaged in what you’re doing,” he said. On different flights in the past, he’s done all this at eighteen thousand feet, at 115 miles per hour, and at 27 degrees below zero. Once, after he landed in a schoolyard in Ireland, a student walked out from the assembled crowd and whispered to Zirpolo, “Tell the teachers there’s no homework today.” The pilot proceeded to announce that, according to American custom, all homework was to be suspended upon the sighting of a hot air balloon. He hit the blast valve as the students cheered and the teachers’ smiles dropped.

There are ways to have fun that don’t involve barreling through the air in a craft cobbled together from fabric and wicker and fire. And there are certainly more efficient forms of transportation. So why become an aeronaut?

Part of the answer might be temperamental. Ballooning is a study in iconoclasm: its history is full of wanderers, thinkers, tinkerers, failures, loafers, coasters, charmers, schemers, pathbreakers, and one intrepid Frenchman who tried to inflate a balloon with combustible gas he had extracted from fecal matter.

But sometimes Zirpolo talks like there’s something transcendent about the whole thing. Like when he was chopping garlic in his central Connecticut home, and I asked him over the phone about the kinds of sensations he can only feel in a balloon. He stopped the slicing, thought for a second, then answered by telling me what he tells nervous potential passengers:

“This is what it feels like to be in a balloon. Sit in a kitchen chair, next to a window. Look out the window, and your eyes can see—but your body does not feel—the ground move away from the building you’re in. There’s no rocking sensation. You just look out the window, and you’re watching the ground move away. You don’t feel that the building you’re in is now moving one way or the other. It looks like somebody just, very slowly, picked it up—you didn’t feel them pick it up, it just happened, and all of a sudden the ground started moving underneath you.

“If I sit you in a balloon basket,” he continued, “and put a blindfold on you, other than the fact that you hear the burner roaring above your head, I can make it so you couldn’t even feel yourself leaving the ground. You can’t get that feeling anywhere else, with anything. Airplanes, helicopters—any other flying machine besides the balloon makes a hell of a racket.”

Zirpolo is flying in the age of Icarus while the rest of us are flying United.

———

Joseph Montgolfier, the inventor of the hot air balloon, was such a layabout that his descendants call toilet paper papier de Joseph the way the rest of France calls hot air balloons montgolfières. “A dreamer and a maverick,” Charles Gillispie called him in his history of ballooning, The Montgolfier Brothers and the Invention of Aviation. “The very type of the inventor, imaginative with objects and processes, impractical in business and affairs.”

In 1782, stricken with boredom while attending a “diploma mill” in Avignon, Joseph built a three-by-four-foot thin wooden frame, stretched a piece of taffeta cloth over it, and lit a few scraps of paper underneath. The lighter-than-air contraption hit the ceiling. He immediately wrote to his brother, Etienne, “Get in a supply of taffeta and of cordage, quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights in the world.”

Joseph and Etienne, inheritors of a paper mill, soon became the Wright Brothers of ballooning. They started on their path to national acclaim in the summer of 1783, which they spent terrorizing the French countryside with experimental balloons. Powered by burning straw, their unmanned paper constructions almost always incinerated upon returning to earth. The few that didn’t suffered at the hands of peasants who thought the glowing, zigzagging orbs were the work of the Devil.

On different flights in the past, Zirpolo has done all this at eighteen thousand feet, at 115 miles per hour, and at 27 degrees below zero.

The montgolfières caught the attention of the French crown, however. At Versailles, King Louis XVI, suspecting a flying ball of fire might have some military applications, watched closely as the Montgolfier brothers exhibited their invention with appropriate pomp and circumstance. At the first cannon blast, a sheep, duck, and rooster marched into the balloon basket; at the second, the animals ascended six hundred meters in the air and absconded from the royal palace. Impressed, the king thought prisoners should be sent up next.

One observer of the Versailles test was Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a twenty-six-year-old who had already made his name in science-obsessed Paris, the Silicon Valley of its day. During public lectures sponsored by the king’s brother, he wowed Parisian elites by exhaling hydrogen onto a candle and breathing fire. He also tested a self-made respirator by lying on a pile of dung for thirty minutes. After watching the montgolfière drift away, Pilâtre followed the quacking and crowing to a spot in the Wood of Vaucresson, three and a half kilometers from the launch site, where he found the royal animals alive and relatively unscathed. Soon afterwards, he volunteered for the Montgolfiers’ first manned experiments. Pilâtre hoped ballooning would increase his standing in a nation captivated by scientific spectacle.

———

A hundred ninety-seven years later, in 1980, Robert Zirpolo got into ballooning to impress a girl. He was courting an airplane pilot-in-training, and thought a balloon ride might be his “in.” He was wrong. “It bored the crap out of her,” he said. Their first time as passengers, there was little wind, and lots of heat. They hovered in place, landed in the woods, and had to haul balloon and basket a hundred yards to the nearest road.

Zirpolo was in his early twenties at the time. He worked at an oyster bar in Kingfield, Maine, a ski town at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain. Kingfielders didn’t plan their social calls; everyone bumped into everyone else on the mountain. Most mornings, he’d ski down gently curving slopes and take in the beauty of his chosen home, a world away from his native Queens. “I miss that like nobody can understand,” he said.

He kept ballooning after that first flight, learning how to fly from a master in Portland. At least, he tried to. Flying, according to Zirpolo, involves skills and instincts that develop over years, even decades. “When I started flying, nobody told me I was ever going to start landing in cul-de-sacs with below-ground power lines, or on a street, or a backyard, or a front yard. That wasn’t part of the training,” he said. “Good experience is obtained through bad decisions.”

In 1981, Zirpolo injured his knee as a passenger in a single-engine plane crash, and had to recover at a friend’s house in Southington, Connecticut. He brought his balloon with him. Walking long distances was challenging, but he could still stand in a basket and operate a burner. One of the first people to fly over the state as commercial ballooning took off in the ’80s, Zirpolo attracted emergency responders concerned about his fire-breathing flying machine, including, once, a Waterbury cop who arrested him after landing because, Zirpolo remembers the officer saying, “this must be illegal.” (It wasn’t; Waterbury police quickly released him.) Yet the unusual craft also drew plenty of spectators—and a few interested passengers. After enough people asked for rides, the pilot realized he could make a business out of a favorite hobby, and maybe earn enough money on summer flights to afford winterlong vacations on Sugarloaf. Soon after, he founded Berkshire Balloons.

“Robert can land on a postage stamp,” Brighenti tells me.

Few aeronauts joined Zirpolo back then, but ballooning, both as a tourism business and as a hobby, has grown ever since—partly because Zirpolo is around to train new pilots. Now, when he’s floating above the Farmington Valley west of Hartford, his passengers preoccupied with the fall foliage, he can chat on a long-range radio with a few of the Connecticut Lighter than Air Society’s fifty-odd members.

Berkshire Balloons has never really paid the bills. It’s more like a “bad habit,” something he hopes will pay for itself even if it can’t support a family. During the week, Zirpolo, now in his sixties, directs pilot training for Gama Aviation, which charters private jets for corporate clients. (“I fly a desk,” he said.) On weekend mornings, weather permitting, he flies balloon tours, clocking about a hundred flight-hours a year.

“The job is not flying,” he said. The job is attracting customers and repairing balloons. Flying—eyeing the pyrometer and manning the blast valve while passengers FaceTime their children from the sky—is the “cake of the job.”

“The best part about this business,” he said, “is that I get to go every time.”

———

On the airfield in Bethlehem, Zirpolo’s balloon is ready to ascend. Two twenty-something brothers, along with a man celebrating his seventieth birthday, join the pilot in the basket. It’s a snug fit. The balloon could maybe accommodate another person, but Zirpolo isn’t about to offer me a free ride in front of passengers who paid almost $300 for this early-morning flight. He unleashes a burst of flame—the last bit of heat needed to make the air inside the craft less dense than the air outside. The balloon detaches from the Earth.

The free ride I am offered gets fifteen miles to the gallon and remains woefully earthbound. Zirpolo has left me behind with his chase crew: longtime friend Jude Russell and Kristen Brighenti, his partner of almost two decades. The three of us will tail the balloon in a seventeen-year-old, twelve-seat Chevy Express, ready to disassemble the craft wherever it happens to land. With the burner still in earshot, we hop inside, rattle past a turkey, and start pursuing the aeronaut.

An hour later, we’re idling on a bridge in a small town north of Waterbury. Zirpolo, suspended somewhere in the foggy south, is checking in with Brighenti on his long-range radio, trying to decide where to land. He wants to know where the chase crew is. Brighenti brings the microphone to her mouth and tells the balloonist that we’re parked by a seafood shack called Crabby Al’s. She knows he has no idea where it is; she just finds the name funny. Russell, helpfully, chimes in with a nearby highway exit. That satisfies the pilot, who goes back to charting his course.

From the title “chase crew,” I’d expected a high-stakes hunt. Instead, I get a tour of central Connecticut, with highlights like Red’s Hardware, Jillie’s Ice Cream Parlor, and the ESPN broadcast headquarters in Bristol. While heat blasts from the dashboard, I learn that Russell is both an electrical engineering consultant and a yogi; I also learn that Brighenti once got a concussion while competing in a curling match. We pass the engineering plant where Russell used to work. There’s a nearby sign reading “Jude Lane”; she’d like to steal it someday.

Above us, Zirpolo looks down on suburban developments that used to be farmers’ fields. Lifelong Connecticut residents, gazing upon their state for the first time, often tell Zirpolo they’re surprised to see so many trees. He tells them to imagine taking an eraser to all the subdivisions built in the last twenty years. “Then you’d say, ‘Wow, there sure are a lot of trees here,’” he said. “I look at it as, ‘There sure is a lot of development here.’”

Not that those developments impede Zirpolo’s flying. “Robert can land on a postage stamp,” Brighenti tells me on our ride. He likes to set targets on his flights, aiming for landing spots other pilots would have a hard time hitting. The other balloonists who took off from the airstrip that morning have all put down near Thomaston, avoiding the fog.

Zirpolo’s nowhere near finished. While we’re by Crabby Al’s, his voice crackles over the Motorola. What sounds like static is actually the intermittent roar of the burner—he’s gaining altitude. Zirpolo says his “declared goal” is to fly over Mount Southington and touch down in a ski area called Panthorn Park, about twenty miles east of the launch site. Russell pulls into the street while Brighenti retorts: “Crew’s declared goal is to get there sometime today.”

———

Pilâtre de Rozier, the man who discovered the royal animals in the woods, was flying with a moron. It was November 21, 1783, and he and François Laurent, Marquis d’Arlandes, were floating over the French countryside, becoming the first men to fly in the process. All the pair had to do to keep their montgolfière afloat was shovel straw into an enclosed flame between them. But the Marquis wasn’t doing his job; he was too busy waving his handkerchief at the speechless crowds below. The balloon was losing altitude and drifting toward a thicket of windmills. “You’re not doing a thing, and we’re not climbing at all,” Pilâtre snapped, as Laurent later recounted in his journal. “Pardon,” he responded, pitchforking a bundle of straw into the fire.

The launch, from the residence of the royal children, had started off auspiciously enough. Sure, the resplendent blue-and-gold montgolfière, emblazoned with Louis XVI’s initials, developed a few holes that needed sewing on the launchpad. And a few people, upon witnessing the ascension, vomited with anxiety. But thousands simply watched with awe, including Benjamin Franklin, who, when asked about the use of this fledgling machine aérostatique, reportedly answered, “What’s the use of a newborn baby?”

After twenty-five minutes, Pilâtre and Laurent crash-landed in the countryside. When Pilâtre emerged from the half-wreck, peasants fought over shreds of his coat. What contemporary author Horace Walpole termed “balloonomania” soon erupted across France, with balloon-shaped dresses dominating fashion and dozens of amateur scientists imitating the machine’s design. Scholars predicted that the unwieldy montgolfière would soon be followed by fleets of deadly airships piloted by France’s finest aéronautes. Man would soon dominate the air.

French citizens looked at the invention with patriotic pride, seeing it as an equalizer that could bring fame to second-rate papermakers and perennial tinkerers, elevating them above terrestrial aristocrats. As Kim Mi Gyung described the atmosphere of the era in The Imagined Empire: Balloon Enlightenments in Revolutionary Europe, “Everybody was equal in the air.”

The ambitions of liberation partly inspired by this balloon frenzy lasted for years, eventually coming to a head in the French Revolution. But the golden age of professional ballooning ended just nineteen months after it began, when the first aeronaut died a fiery death at six thousand feet.

A national hero, Pilâtre de Rozier had set his sights on a new goal: crossing the English Channel. With a pension from the crown, he designed his own flying machine, the rozière, by placing a hydrogen balloon on top of a traditional montgolfière. (Because hydrogen is lighter than air, hydrogen balloons can ascend without added heat.) People told Pilâtre his invention wouldn’t work. Intent on proving them wrong, the irrepressible entertainer started out over the Channel in the hybrid machine. 

Within minutes, it burst into flames. “For a few moments,” Gillispie wrote in The Montgolfier Brothers, the pilot “hung motionless as the upper module became a globe of fire.” Spectators found Pilâtre’s body as the remains of his rozière washed ashore.

Balloonomania came to a decisive end; balloon bonnets were no longer in fashion. Etienne Montgolfier thought Pilâtre’s death might prove useful, pivoting public attention from spectacular demonstrations to a consideration of the technology’s practical applications. Unfortunately for him, balloons had none. The same craft that mesmerized Paris proved useless for transporting goods, bombs, or soldiers. “Balloons have always moved minds better than they’ve moved bodies,” Jason Pearl wrote in the Atlantic in 2018. France’s balloon dreams died alongside its first pilot.

———

Zirpolo won’t make it to Panthorn Park—the winds on this side of Mt. Southington are too variable. He’ll have to find somewhere in the suburbs to land, and “might have to drop the drop line,” which, if Russell’s hurried driving is any indication, isn’t a good sign. Without a ground crew to help stabilize the hundred-foot balloon as it descends toward grasping tree branches and looming power lines, any number of things could go wrong—especially if the wind picks up.

The golden age of professional ballooning ended just nineteen months after it began, when the first aeronaut died a fiery death at six thousand feet.

Russell rips down suburban streets, slowing at intersections to try to spot the surprisingly hard-to-find balloon. Then, we see it, an upside-down polychrome raindrop in the overcast sky. Russell starts hunting for a route to Zirpolo, avoiding cul-de-sacs and swerving past gawkers braking in the middle of the street.

We come to an intersection that looks to be all dead ends. Russell slows, almost stops—then Zirpolo squawks over the radio: “Make that right.” He’s spotted the Chevy from above. Russell turns down Pacer Lane; a throng of pajama-clad parents and kids, awestruck by the balloon floating a few dozen feet over their heads, come into view.

Brighenti is almost out of the van by the time Russell pulls it to the curb. “Hurry up!” Zirpolo shouts as the crew snatches onto the drop line, a sort of elongated seatbelt hanging from the basket. The balloon, lilting toward a roof, steadies to a hover. When Brighenti runs under the basket to strategize with the pilot, he yells for me to help Russell. I grab the drop line and tug.

Zirpolo lays off the burner for good. His cooling craft alights on the asphalt. “I’m Robert Zirpolo,” he announces to the children inching toward the balloon, whose skeleton and princess pajamas aren’t nearly warm enough for the 10 a.m. air. “How are you all doing?” The giggling kids scatter as Zirpolo opens a vent at the crown of the balloon, beginning its deflation.

The pilot conscripts parents, passengers, and children to pack up the balloon, which transitions from a mythical object to the world’s largest heap of laundry. We all stand in line and wait to stuff our handful of heavy fabric into a large brown sack. Zirpolo and the kids sit on the sack, flattening it so that it can fit in the back of the van. Then in goes the sack, the basket, Zirpolo, Russell, Brighenti, the brothers, the septuagenarian, and me. The doors clatter shut. We drive back to the launch site, retracing the arc Zirpolo flew over state forests and golf courses. “We were only going fifteen miles per hour. I wanted fifty,” the aeronaut says. He reacclimates to life on the ground as the van gets stuck in a narrow Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru. Russell has to turn onto an empty dirt lot to escape.

Back at the Bethlehem airfield, crew and pilot lay out a champagne-and-cheese breakfast, including bread Zirpolo baked at 5 a.m. that morning. He hands me a champagne glass with a miniature balloon etched on its surface. “We don’t care how old you are,” he laughs.

— Robert Scaramuccia is a senior in Trumbull College.

2 Comments

  1. I just read so much about hot air balloons that I never knew. I have seen them before but I myself would be afraid to go up on one.

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