Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fake or Not, Balloon Boy Had the Right Idea, just not Zeppelin Enough

Okay, so it's looking pretty obvious that the Balloon Boy saga was a fake. But issues of shameless self-promotion and bad parenting aside, I think a lot of the focus on the Balloon Boy non-adventure was because many people had in the backs of their minds the thought, "That'd be pretty cool to float above the earth like that."

Boys in balloons have happened before. The Bay Area has its own case, from 1964, reports SFGate.com. And USA Today tells us about a boy who used to be attached to a balloon by his father and sent aloft.

Still, I'm not a fan of putting boys in balloons and sending them into the air, though under the right circumstances, the kid's probably having the time of his life. (It sure beats hiding in an attic for five hours.) But I do like the idea of traveling by balloon -- big balloons, zeppelins. And I'm still waiting for that to happen.

One of my favorite covers of the old Future Life magazine as the December 1979 issue (#15), which featured a painting of a dirigible docking on a tall building and the headline "Return of the Airship." Inside, writers James Holahan and Adam Starchild wrote about efforts to popularize a new generation of dirigibles. "Traveling by airship is flying in the truest sense," the authors write. "This is bird-like flight, with a sense of freedom and relaxation, as opposed to the sensation of being hurtled through the air in a machine."

Dirigibles have had a bit of a bad press since the Hindenburg explosion. But newer versions of the flying giants are safer and sleeker. Still, even the old ones can fascinate: I heartily recommend Douglas Botting's book, Dr. Eckener's Dream Machine: The Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel, for a very readable history of airships and their fate.

Luckily, others continue to dream Dr. Eckener's dream, and they're smarter than Balloon Boy's parents. For example, the Zeppelin NT (New Technology) launched in 2001. As BusinessWeek's Adam Aston noted in 2007, "The appeal of zeppelins is enduring, and difficult to describe. Is it their slow moving grace, like whales in the sky? The retro-hip 1930s futurama look and feel of the modern, when modern really meant something?" Maybe all of those reasons. After all, wanting to see dirigibles floating through the sky ferrying people and freight doesn't mean one doesn't want to see airplanes and trains. But it would be nice to reclaim a graceful -- and cool -- technology that was unfairly discarded when speed and power became the main criteria for transportation.

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