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Hail Atlantis, Charlie Brown, and Linden Harding's 1970 balloon patent

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Michigan designer Linden F. Harding took a fresh approach
to balloon design. So what ever became of Harding
and his "Transcom" balloons? Now we know - read on!


Since putting this page up, I've been contacted by a couple of people who knew Linden Harding back in his early balloon-building days. One of them tracked Mr. Harding down, and, a short time later, I received a delightful e-mail from Mr. Harding himself. Click here for Linden Harding's own description of how he, and the state of Michigan, got started in hot-air ballooning.

The balloon pictured above is one of the most innovative of the early American homebuilts. When I found the patent held by its designer, I thought I'd found what amounted to the plans for this balloon. I hadn't. The patent documents describe a balloon called Charlie Brown, a one-place balloon with a dragster seat for the pilot. The balloon in the photos is Hail Atlantis, built in the late 1960s and entered in the 1973 and '74 Fiestas as a "Transcom-Commodore" (but registered as a homebuilt). She was the brainchild of Linden Harding, a talented automotive designer at General Motors' Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. One writer recalls that Harding penned the form of the original Trans-Am Firebird (including the bird design on the hood), as well as the long-nose Cadillac Eldorado and the distinctive split-window Buick Riviera. Harding was assisted in the design and construction of Hail Atlantis by a team of young graduates and engineering students from GMI (General Motors Institute, in Flint, Michigan), who aided in all phases of Hail Atlantis' creation, including the complex mathematical formulas determining the size and shape of each fabric panel.

Harding ordered the woven basket from Poland -- it was both spacious and, as proven in several hard landings, durable. Both Hail Atlantis and Charlie Brown were constructed from surplus Navy parachutes (Harding was a Navy reservist, hence Charlie Brown's orange-and-white color scheme). The parachutes were laboriously disassembled stitch-by-stitch, cut to shape, numbered, and coated with a costly clear, rubberized coating. The panels were then re-cut and assembled into the pattern of nested triangles depicted in the Charlie Brown patent documents. One visitor recalls that the burner unit consisted of three separate modules.

The envelope incorporated vertical metal cables for strength (and, one would assume, conductivity, although this was fortunately never tested). Harding flew with no instruments, although he did use handheld radios of spotty reliability. Occasionally, a local constabulary would go so far as to arrest Harding and his passengers when their appearance from above caused undue commotion among the gentry.

Harding formed the "Balloon Platoon of America," a successful balloon club whose fast growth paced the exploding popularity of ballooning in the early 1970s. Occasionally, Harding and Hail Atlantis would be retained for appearances at public events in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania (generally shopping-center promotions). For a time, Hail Atlantis was acknowledged to be the largest hot-air balloon in the world.

Interestingly, there's an entry in the 1974 Fiesta program for one Michael Kemeter of Dexter, Michigan, flying Echo, a Transcom AX-7. It's one of the few entries in that program without a photo of the balloon. Obviously, I know nothing whatsoever about Echo. Do you?

I hope to collect more images of Hail Atlantis (and, ideally, some of Echo and/or Charlie Brown), but at present, the photo above is the best shot I have of her basket and burner. I've always considered this the balloon I'm most eager to learn about - a highly unusual design about which mysteriously little is known. I'm grateful, then, to those who have written with information on Harding and his balloons. If you have information on either subject, and especially if you have photos of Hail Atlantis or (dare I ask) Charlie Brown, I'd really appreciate it if you'd drop me a line.

For now, thanks to the U.S. Patent Office, I can present all you could ever want to know about the unique envelope design conceived for Charlie Brown and adapted for Hail Atlantis. Scroll down to view the Charlie Brown patent files and images of Hail Atlantis, and read more about Harding and his creations.


As always on these pages, clicking on an image (including the one above) will open a new window with a much larger version of the image.
You can also download a .zip archive containing the patent documents from the U.S. Patent Office in .tiff format (Click here).
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A few more images of
Hail Atlantis...

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Hail Atlantis over Sandstone Drive, Tienken Manor, Rochester, Mich., around 1972
Photo: George Schutte; courtesy Patrick Schutte
Thank you, Patrick, for my favorite Hail Atlantis photo!

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Photo by the author's Mom

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READERS WRITE!

Jeff Kocher sent this e-mail about Linden ("Lin") Harding and
his balloons, which I adapt here, with Jeff's kind permission:

Glad to see Hail Atlantis on your site! My father helped Lin build his first balloon, Charlie Brown and Hail Atlantis as part of Lin's "Balloon Platoon," formed when they both worked at the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. I first saw Charlie Brown at a photo shoot on the Tech Center grounds as a young child. Of course, I was nuts about anything related to aviation or spaceflight, and it was the first aircraft I had a chance to see close-up.

Back from Michigan State University for the summer, I noticed an ad in the local paper looking for balloon ground crew. It turned out to be HighAmerica, the balloon ride and advertising company Lin started when he left GM in the '70s. HighAmerica flew four Piccards at the time -- all Stretch Sixes as I recall: Black Bart, mostly black with orange crosses similar to the Chevy bow-tie, Birmingham Camera, The Detroit News, and the HighAmerica balloon. HighAmerica was blue and purple and orange and had a white middle equipped with Velcro for banners. Well, I began crewing as often as my regular summer job would permit. I was a crew chief after a few weeks, and began flight lessons in exchange for crewing. Lin taught many of the pilots in Michigan through the '70s and '80s. I was constantly exposed to the different pilots he trained, who continued to fly charters for him. At the time, I believe Lin had somewhere over 1500 hours, and constantly amazed us with what he could get a balloon to do.

Regarding the unique design in the patent - Lin never did have a lot of capital. As I understand it, Charlie Brown was constructed of surplus parachutes, deconstructed and reassembled as shown in the drawings. After Hail Atlantis, I know he worked on a perfectly smooth-sided balloon - he had photos of a test inflation inside the Pontiac Silverdome. That balloon was destroyed during a disastrous fire started while coating the balloon fabric. I last talked to Lin in the mid-'90s when we brought in Don Piccard as the speaker at the annual South East Michigan Balloon Association (SEMBA) safety seminar.

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Thanks to Jeff Kocher for sending his recollections of Linden Harding and his balloons, and for telling Mr. Harding about this site once he'd tracked him down. HUGE thanks to Linden Harding himself, for looking this page over, correcting some details (with more corrections to come), and for creating this terrific account of the introduction of modern ballooning to Michigan's skies. Anyone who wants to contact Mr. Harding, just drop me a line, and I'll send his address. I'm not going to post it here, because spammers' robots harvest e-mail addresses from this site, and I don't want to make my honored "guest columnist" a target of extra spam.
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