Stolen Balloon – 1907

From The Washington Times, November 4, 1907. 

The Washington Times
November 4, 1907

William Van Sleet – Aeronaut, Balloonist

    William Van Sleet, (Born ? – Died ?), of North Adams, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and sometimes reported as living in New York, was a well known New England aeronaut who made balloon ascensions in the early 1900s. 

     The first mention of Mr. Van Sleet in any newspapers that research could find appeared in The Bennington Evening Banner in 1907, and had to do with a car accident which occurred at “Shedd Bridge”, “east of Walloomsac”.  Although both vehicles suffered damage, there were no injuries.   There is some documentation which indicates that Van Sleet, besides being an aeronaut, also worked as a chauffer.      

      Beginning around 1906, balloon ascensions began to be a regular occurrence in the Berkshires section of western Massachusetts, and the towns of Pittsfield and Adams became involved in a rivalry of sorts for the bragging rights and the tourism dollars that each ascension would bring.  It was around this time frame that the Aero Club of Pittsfield was established and Van Sleet became a member.    

     The first reference to Van Sleet’s aeronautical career was found in the Daily Kennebec Journal, July 29, 1908.  The brief snippet stated in part: “The Aero Club of Pittsfield will dedicate their new balloon, the “Heart of the Berkshires” tomorrow at 10 a.m.”  The pilot was Leo Stevens, a prominent aeronaut of the time, with passengers Allan R. Hawley of New York, and William Van Sleet of Pittsfield.  

     In light of the dedication, it was quickly announced that the balloon “Boston” belonging to the Boston Aero Club would ascend at the same time from the town of North Adams, and there would be a “race” between the two to see which could cover the greatest distance.  The “Boston” was to be piloted by Charles Glidden, another prominent aeronaut of the time, with his passenger, Professor H. H. Clayton of the Blue Hills Observatory. 

     Both balloons were of the same size, 38,000 cubic feet.  The “Heart of the Berkshires” took off as scheduled, but only traveled about eight miles before coming down near Wahconah Falls in Dalton, Massachusetts. 

     The “Boston”, on the other hand, didn’t fair much better.  After being caught in a windstorm and carried up to 10,000 feet, the balloon began to fall rapidly and its occupants were forced to discharge all available ballast.  It landed safely on a farm about six miles from its starting point.    

     Exactly who announced that a race would take place is not recorded, but Mr. Glidden later told the press that he was unaware of any scheduled race between the two balloons, and said that each had made independent ascensions.    

     Balloons of this era used hydrogen or coal gas, both of which were poisonous if inhaled.  In mid August of 1908, Van Sleet was scheduled to make a balloon ascension from Pittsfield in the “Heart of the Berkshires”, when he was seriously affected by the release of gas from a malfunctioning valve.  This was to be his fifth ascension to help him qualify as a balloon pilot for the Pittsfield Aero Club.  When the balloon was nearly filled with gas, it was discovered that the valve cord near the top of the balloon had failed to uncoil, so Van Sleet climbed up seventy-five feet of the balloon’s netting to remedy the situation.  When the valve unexpectedly popped open he was hit in the face with a rush of escaping gas.  After closing the valve he made his way back to the ground where he nearly collapsed.  He was attended to by three doctors, all of who warned him not to make the flight in his condition.  Van Sleet ignored the warnings, and made the flight anyway with Dr. Sidney S. Stowell as a passenger.       

     Later that same month Van Sleet made a solo trip in “Heart of the Berkshires”.  He ascended from Pittsfield and traveled ninety miles before landing near Montgomery, New York.  He’d made the trip alone as part of his pilot qualification process.    

     Van Sleet made another flight on September 2, which lasted 32 minutes and landed in South Deerfield, Mass. His two passengers were Frank Smith of Boston, and Oscar Hutchinson of Lennox, Mass.  

     On September 10, 1908, Van Sleet took off from Pittsfield at midnight and sailed eastward across the state covering a distance of more than one-hundred miles before landing safely in the the town of Kingston, Massachusetts, about two miles from the Atlantic Ocean. He had as a passenger Dr. Sidney Stowell. 

     On the same night Van sleet took his overnight flight, Charles Glidden did the same, and took off at midnight from Springfield, Massachusetts.  There was no mention of any competition between the two aeronauts, and neither balloon was in sight of the other throughout the night.  Glidden’s balloon landed safely in the town of Bridgewater, Mass.   

     Most of Van Sleet’s ascensions were without incident, but a flight he made in October of 1908  was anything but routine.  On the afternoon of October 29, he took off from the North Adams Aero Park in the balloon “Greylock”, with M. Monard, or Mennard, as a passenger.  Strong 40 mph winds were blowing at the time and it reportedly took forty men to hold the balloon in place while the two men climbed into it.  Van Sleet was advised to abort the flight but didn’t take heed.    

     The “Greylock” began its ascension at 3 p. m. and was quickly caught in a strong air current which propelled it at 80 mph in a southeast direction.  As the balloon approached Mt. Hoosick the men were forced to jettison ballast in order to clear the top of it. 

     As the balloon approached the town of Whately, Massachusetts, the anchor was dropped.  It caught in the tops of some trees, then a stone wall, and then tore away part of a barn roof.  Realizing that the anchor was useless, Van Sleet pulled the rip cord allowing the gas to escape.  The balloon came down hard from an altitude of seventy-five feet and both men were pitched out, but neither was seriously injured.  The balloon had covered forty miles in thirty minutes.    

     A few days later Van Sleet made another ascension in the “Heart of the Berkshires”, only this time he flew in and above a snowstorm, something that was extremely unusual for the time.   With him on the flight was William C. Hill.     

     On November 17, 1908, Van Sleet made a rough landing in the town of Rockville, Connecticut.  He’d attempted to land in an open lot, but when the anchor rope broke the balloon drifted into the center of town where it tore down some electric and fire alarm wires, and crushed a grape arbor when it landed in a private back yard.  Van Sleet was not injured, but the chief of police arrived on scene and promptly “arrested” the balloon ordering it held until financial damages could be settled.  This incident made national news, for it was believed to be the first case in which a balloon had been “arrested”.   

     On April 19, 1909, Van Sleet and his passenger Oscar Hutchinson came down in a wooded area of Biddeford, Maine, after traveling 160 miles, making it one of the longest balloon flights of the time.

     In June of 1909, Van Sleet flew a honeymoon couple from Pittsfield to the outskirts of Boston.  The balloon took off shortly after midnight on June 21, and drifted eastward throughout the early morning hours.  At about 4:00 in the morning, Van Sleet spotted  the Blue Hills Observatory and prepared to land.  The anchor caught a tree in an orchard and the balloon came down with barely a bump. 

     At the time of the flight a Boston newspaper was offering a trophy to the balloon pilot that could ascend from western Massachusetts and land closest to the Boston Common within a year.  Van Sleet had landed within fourteen miles, thereby breaking the previous record of twenty-six miles.   

     On July 11, 1909, Van Sleet set a new distance record for himself when he landed in Topsham, Maine, a distance of 176 miles.  His previous record set in April had been 160 miles.   

     By May of 1910, Van Sleet had completed fifty balloon voyages. 

     On June 5, 1910, Van Sleet with two newspapermen aboard landed the balloon “Massachusetts” in the center of the town of Bennington, Vermont, about a half-mile from the famous battle monument.  This was the second time that a balloon had landed in that town.      

Bennington Evening Banner
March 26, 1910
Click on image to enlarge.

      An advertisement found in a 1910 newspaper indicates that Mr. Van Sleet was the sales manager for the Tower Motor Company of Adams, Massachusetts, which sold “Overland” automobiles.   

      On October 8, 1911, Van Sleet and a passenger, Jay B. Benton of Boston, traveled 200 miles in the balloon “Boston”, ascending from Pittsfield, Mass. and landing in Lakewood, New Jersey.  This was the longest trip to date made by the “Boston”, and it took three hours.    

     The following year, on October 30, 1912, Van Sleet and Benton completed the longest balloon flight to date in New England when they traveled at night in the balloon “Springfield” from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to Pittston, Maine, a straight-line distance of about 250 miles.  

     It is unknown exactly how many balloon ascensions William Van Sleet made during his career. 

     As of this writing, no further information about his career was found.       

Sources:

     The Bennington Evening Banner, “Van Sleet in Auto Crash”, October 18, 1907 

     The Morning Journal-Courier, (New Haven, CT.) “Air Race Today”, July 29, 1908.

     Daily Kennebec Journal, “Will Dedicate New Balloon At Pittsfield”, July 29, 1908, pg. 4 

     Evening Star, (Washington, D.C.), “Aeronauts Exciting Adventure”, July 30, 1908.

     The Evening World, (N.Y.) “Warned Of Death Peril By Doctors Goes Ballooning”, August 19, 1908.   

     Evening Star, “Qualifying For A License”, August 29, 1908, pg. 2. 

     The Morning Journal-Courier, “Flight of Thirty-Two Minutes”, September 3, 1908, pg. 9. 

     New York Tribune, “Balloons in Moonlight Journey”, September 11, 1908, pg. 5

     New York Tribune, “80 Miles An Hour In Air”, October 31, 1908

     The Bennington Evening Banner, “Aeronauts Go A Mile A Minute” November 2, 1908. 

     The Morning Journal- Courier, “Balloon in Snowstorm”, November 7, 1908.    

     The Marion Daily Mirror, (Ohio) “A Balloon Is Arrested”, November 18, 1908, pg. 2

     Bennington Evening Banner, “Balloon In Tree Top”, April 20, 1909

     Bennington Evening Banner, “Van Sleet Best Yet”, June 22, 1909

     Bennington Evening Banner, “New Record For Van Sleet”, July 12, 1909

     Bennington Evening Banner, Overland Car Advertisement, March 26, 1910.

     Bennington Evening Banner, “Balloon Lands At Bennington Center”, June 6, 1910. 

     Daily Kennebec Journal, “Makes Quick Trip”, October 9, 1911. 

     The (NY) Sun, “Take Long Trip Above Clouds”, October 31, 1912. 

 

 

 

    

Harlow M. Spencer – Aeronaut, Balloonist

Click on articles to enlarge.

The Daily Exchange
(Baltimore, MD.)
September 22, 1858

Connecticut Western News
September 2, 1897

Pittsfield, MA. – March 10, 1906

Pittsfield, Massachusetts – March 10, 1906 

     In early March of 1906, two balloons were brought to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to take part in a race scheduled for Sunday, March 11th  One balloon, the Aero Club No. 1, “American”, was to be piloted by famous New England aeronaut Leo Stevens; the other, “L’ Atonette”  by well-known French aeronaut Charles Levee.  Both balloons were secured to moorings at the Pittsfield Gas Works and the inflation of them began.  A guard was posted to supervise the inflation and to keep the curious at bay.  

     At about 9:23 a.m. on the morning of March 10, a sudden gusty windstorm passed through the area which tore both balloons from their moorings.  Both were reportedly about 3/4 fill with gas by that time, and neither were manned.   

     The “L’ Atonette” was dragged across an open area and became snagged on an iron stake and was torn apart.  Meanwhile, the “American” reportedly “shot up with tremendous force”, and disappeared from view.  It was last seen heading in an easterly direction towards Boston. 

     There were no reported injuries. 

     It is unknown what became of the “American” balloon.    

     The race was postponed until new balloons could be obtained.  It is believed to have taken place in October of 1906. 

     Source:

     The Daily Kennebec Journal, (Augusta, ME.), “Not On Program – Balloons At Pittsfield, Mass. Break From Moorings”, March 12, 1906, page 4.   

 

 

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