AUGUST 28, 1978
In August 1978, 51 years after the Lone Eagle, Charles Lindbergh, made the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, in The Spirit of St. Louis, the Double Eagle II helium balloon captivated millions by sailing from Presque Isle, Maine, to a wheat field near Miserey, France. "Imagine if a mugger with a .357 magnum pulls the trigger, and the gun goes click," says Larry Newman, who captained Double Eagle II along with Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson, attempting to articulate his feelings about completing the Atlantic crossing that had killed five balloonists since '58. "You think you're going to die, but you hear that
click and you run away."
Newman has run away from the gun's click more than once. The loudest click came in 1995, when, while making a jump in a skydiving competition, his parachute became entangled with that of another skydiver, and he went into a 60-foot free fall that ended when he hit the ground. That should have made him the third member of the Double Eagle II crew to the in a flying mishap—Anderson perished in a balloon accident over Germany in '83, and two years later Abruzzo died in a plane crash—but remarkably Newman escaped with a fractured skull and other broken bones.
Newman has always pushed the limits: He learned to fly a plane at 14, mastered hang gliding both as a participant and as a builder in the early 1970s, and was a member of the crew that first crossed the Pacific in a balloon, in '81. He also took part in three unsuccessful around-the-world attempts. Newman even met his friend and mentor Abruzzo when he mistakenly landed his hang glider in Abruzzo's front yard in Albuquerque in '74. His near-fatal skydiving accident changed his outlook. "I didn't see a white light or anything, but I realized what I didn't want to do," Newman, 54, says. "Instead of enjoying myself and other people, I had wanted to drive the fastest car, fly the highest airplane, make the most money. I realized that having good friends is what's important."
A year after his accident he was back at his job as a pilot for America West Airlines. He stopped flying in 1998 and invested in a friend's start-up telecommunications company, but a grounded Newman was an unhappy Newman. He got back in the air, flying cargo to Europe and South America for Florida West Airlines. "I'm interested in meeting people, understanding cultures and having new experiences," says Newman, an avid fly fisherman, "but I close my eyes sometimes and picture the stuff we saw and talked about on that flight across the Atlantic, and it's an emotional high that I can't begin to describe."