New book documents Akron’s gas balloon history

by Kyle Cochrun

Hands Off!: Epic Adventures of the Balloon Flyers of Akron, is one of those charming books so deeply concerned with its subject matter that it simultaneously ends up being about something else. Authors William G. Armstrong Jr. and Michael C. Emich set out to write a book about Akron’s rich history of gas balloon flight. At the same time, they created an exhaustive testament to their joint obsession with a niche interest. This was clearly a passion project, and it’s as thorough as they come.

“Bill and I felt these stories and photos would be lost to history if we did not write them down, as he and I were the last active members of [the Balloon Flyers of Akron],” Emich says.  

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Hands Off! exhaustively documents the pilots, mechanics, scientists, writers, and stick-and-rudder men of Akron’s gas balloon history in 323 pages crammed with technical jargon and tidy anecdotes of historically notable flights. The duo scarcely mentions themselves between the opening couple of pages and the last quarter of the book. Once most of the history has been recounted and the forbearers have been properly acknowledged and honored, Armstrong and Emich blend their own expeditions into the narrative, starting with their first flight, which left from Akron Fulton airport on June 4, 1983. 

Epic adventures in flight, of course, often entail dangerous mishaps, thwarted expeditions and occasionally end in death. The most vivid anecdotes in Hands Off! relay stories deserving of legend that surely inspired awe in Akron’s relatively small balloon flight community but are worthy of a much larger audience. 

The best of these tales from early in the book involve Ward Van Orman, a champion pilot in the 1920s who aged into “an Akron legend, a nattily dressed celebrity wherever he went.” Van Orman survived a lightning strike that killed a co-pilot. He spent 14 days stranded in the woods of Quebec following the crash. During the 1925 Gordon Bennet race starting from Brussels, Belgium, a current blew Van Orman and his co-pilot Carl Wollman over the English Channel. Foreseeing imminent death, Wollman shot his flare gun at the balloon but missed. Eventually, the two saved themselves by landing on a moving ship:

They flew over the pitch-dark Atlantic until Van Orman spotted the lights of a small steamer rolling along in 24-foot waves. Van Orman descended and used a flashlight to send a Morse code message: “We are going to land on board.” He and Wollman deployed a sea anchor which slowed the balloon’s speed to about four miles per hour. Miraculously, they landed on the deck of the S.S. Vaterland and pulled the rip panel. Landing on the pitching deck of a ship at night in high seas was the gutsiest move involving the most extraordinary good fortune of any balloonist ever. 

One of the book’s strengths is its sharp attention to detail, specifically in sections describing the intricacies of flight and physical spaces. The epigraph, a description of Akron and Lake Erie as viewed from above, was culled from disappeared balloonist John Wise’s 1873 book Through the Air, and its literary flourish gives away the authors’ inspiration. Though Hands Off! doesn’t grasp for poetics, it does display some sharp descriptive chops, as evidenced by this description of the Guggenheim Airship Institute, which opened in 1931: 

The research center was housed in a four-story Art Deco building overlooking the airport. Its unique features included a vertical wind tunnel to measure the effects of upward wind gusts on airship hulls. On an exterior wall facing the Airdock, a carved stone angel cradled an airship in her arms… The cream-colored brick facade was accented with polished bronze entrance doors, ornate plastic moldings and smooth terrazzo floors. 

Gas balloon enthusiasts will eat this stuff up. Some dense clods of technical jargon may be tedious for layman readers to get through, but those already interested in the subject will be enamored with the precision of detail and the depth of research it suggests. 

For the average, perpetually grounded Akronite like myself, perhaps the most profound takeaway from reading this book is learning about a specific niche of this city’s history. Books like Hands Off! deepen Akron’s written history from a perspective the average citizen has probably never considered, but that they can appreciate. Reading Hands Off! leaves one with the impression that there must be dozens of alternative Akron histories yet to be told, records of passionate groups of individuals whose obsessions have been blossoming without recognition for years. These histories deserve to be written. Here’s to more books like Hands Off!

Kyle Cochrun is a writer from Akron. Contact him at kylecochrun@gmail.com.

Photos used with permission by William Armstrong

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