Identified Flying Object
At the corner of 12th and O, three boys sprawled out on the sidewalk, the oldest carefully aligning his prized emerald “killer” in the hope of scattering a great many brightly colored marbles. With great concentration he placed his right elbow, then his wrist into the crudely drawn circle, searching for his next spherical victim when something caught his eye. It was a dark outline, oblong in shape but rising very rapidly in the western sky. He hesitated and unconsciously started to point, prompting the other boys to follow his gaze skyward.
Off to the southwest, the undulating din of cicadas rose from the Epworth Park oaks. The trees parted to permit a couple to paddle their tired rowboat along the Salt Creek. As the man backed his way northwest, his companion saw the silhouette of an airship some miles off. She recognized the familiar outline of the Capitol Beach balloon.
Its eye-catching appearance over the amusement park was a sight that never failed to impress her. She knew the routine. The balloon and the aeronaut would ascend from the park on most calm and clear summer days. When the balloon reached a certain height, the aeronaut would jump from his platform and parachute back to a cheering crowd of patrons.
She was part of the welcoming crowd herself not two weeks before when the aeronaut landed less than ten feet from her.
But now as she looked to the sky something seemed different. First off, the balloon was accelerating with great speed as if shot out of a cannon. But the speed wasn’t the only oddity. The balloon’s outline looked asymmetrical. The platform which carried the performer was absent. And then there was the matter of the trailing rope and…..
She was now fixated on the sky. It was clear that someone was holding on for their very life.
Carefully her partner guided the boat to the creek’s bank to see for himself what could explain her unresponsive behavior. The two now joined thousands witnessing a developing calamity high above Lincoln, Nebraska.
The date was June 12, 1910 and it turned out to be no accident.
Gustave Adolph Weiberg called himself an aeronaut and was the resident performer at Capitol Beach, the summer resort just outside Lincoln. He was born August 3, 1881 in Malmo, Sweden, then and now the third most populated city in the country. His family arrived in the U.S. on June 16, 1883 a few months before his second birthday where they joined fellow Swedes and settled in this popular mid-western city.
As he matured, Adolph, as he wished to be called, developed an interest in flight. When he turned 22, the Wright Brothers made their celebrated flight fueling his own aviation ambitions. However, affordable and dependable biplanes were still a decade or more away.
Ballooning on the other hand was the most expeditious and practical route to gain communion with the clouds. It attracted great crowds at county fairs and other public amusements so Adolph decided to merge pleasure with profit by purchasing a balloon and make a business of it at nearby Capitol Beach.
But simple ballooning was not enough for Adolph. He decided to spice up his performance by adding a unique dimension. By attaching a homemade platform or “trapeze”, he could be carried aloft and safely parachute back to the park. This later proved to be a popular attraction and permitted Adolph to be compensated accordingly.
For his daring-do, Adolph was paid $25.00 per jump by the Capitol Beach ownership, the equivalent of $580.00 in today’s dollars; handsome earnings for a few hours of work.
But all was not thrill and spectacle. Hard work and planning were needed to ready the balloon for duty. This involved wrestling the clumsy bag into place, staking and securing ropes and creating the fires necessary to achieve its complement of superheated air. And then there was the matter of retrieval.
After Adolph’s lofty departure the balloon would eventually cool and return to terra firma perhaps a mile or more away, which in turn required a difficult slog back to the park.
The sum of all this effort required other capable hands and fortunately many young men freely offered their help.
One overeager helper was the curiously named Clyde Heckle.
Clyde then 18 years old, was 5’9″, slight of build and possessed ” a ruddy complexion, light brown hair and gray eyes” according to one newspaper account. . His family was well known in Lincoln; his parents owning a popular eatery.
Clyde and Adolph were known to each other having worked together for over a year. But Clyde’s aspirations went beyond merely prepping Adolph’s balloon for the exhibition. He often implored him for a chance to make his own solo ascent. These urgings were consistently refused even when the youth offered an astounding $100 for the privilege.
Evidently the dismissals did not dampen Clyde’s intentions. He told friends he would have his ride with or without the owner’s permission. He just needed the right moment to make it happen.
And so on one late Sunday afternoon, June 12, 1910 Clyde would get his ride.
Prior to the performance all seemed routine and normal. The air was warm with very light winds and a few fair weather clouds overhead. The balloon had expanded to capacity straining the hempen ropes that kept it tethered to the fairgrounds. The young assistants were manning their rope stations awaiting their final orders. And Adolph was finishing his pre-flight checklist and beginning to mount his trapeze.
Now hundreds of Sunday spectators crowded around to view the launch. With everything completed and the performer secure on his platform Adolph, ever the showman, shouted to the fairgoers:
“Good bye, everybody”
Then to his assistants:
“Let go everybody”
With a tremendous lurch the balloon exploded upward.
A Split Decision
However a stupefied Adolph, his trapeze and parachute remained earth-bound. His first thoughts were that he had overlooked a fastening requirement; an embarrassment of the first order.
But looking upwards he immediately realized that Heckle had somehow pulled off a stunning airborne theft.
Apparently the young man while positioned at his roping station had surreptitiously disengaged the platform moments before the release order came. It also appeared that he had tied a loop midway up his own anchoring rope to act as a stirrup, placed his right foot inside and grabbed the upper rope tightly with both hands.
As he rose he called down to the benumbed and humiliated Adolph:
“It takes a man to make a balloon ascension”
Then to the confused crowd:
“Everyone eat at our restaurant”
The sans-parachute Heckle rose quickly 1,000 then 3,000 feet spinning slowly while dangling unbalanced off to one side. He enjoyed a kind of Tarzan of the Jungle image except this one shot upwards in addition to swinging side to side.
Although the wind was light the balloon tossed and dipped in fits, causing the ever expanding group of onlookers to shriek. Everyone believed this to be an airborne accident, including the newspaper accounts that immediately followed.
The bouncing movements lasted for the next 30 minutes as the balloon reached its atmospheric equilibrium point a mile above Lincoln. The balloon was slowly cooling and beginning its inexorable descent with Clyde enjoying the view:
“While I was making the ascent, the earth seemed to be dropping below me. I could scarcely perceive that I was going up until the atmosphere became more rare. While I was not perfectly at home when I ascended 6,000 feet in the air …. Still I was not one whit afraid. What I did I planned. If I was afraid I would not have made the ascension”
“How did the city look? Just a little speck when I was at the highest point. I couldn’t make out Havelock at all. University Place was hardly perceptible. When one goes skyward the horizon appears to close in. You don’t get to see much of the surrounding country”.
An Arresting Splashdown
The balloon and its intrepid passenger were destined to land into the middle of the Capitol Beach’s salt lake. A gasoline launch was quickly dispatched to aid in the rescue.
Clyde splashed down into the briny mix with the balloon following a few yards away. Fortunately for Heckle he kept his head above water long enough to be quickly hauled aboard and save him from an ironic drowning. A soggy but cheerful Heckle was delivered to shore before a large crowd eager to see the youth who so brazenly challenged death. But not everyone was there to provide a hero’s welcome.
As he disembarked from the skiff, Heckle was greeted by a local constable who promptly announced his arrest. This was met with confusion and groans from the crowd who drew in closer.
Adolph had now elbowed his way to the front to confront his assistant. His earlier embarrassment turned to rage when he saw his canvas balloon and livelihood hit the drink. The angry aeronaut swung a vicious right hook at Heckle’s jaw. The youngster anticipating the blow, ducked to his left and avoided the impact. Once again Adolph would come up empty today at Heckle’s prompting.
The officer now turned to restrain Adolph and in that one opportunistic moment, Clyde broke through the crowd. In a comical chase by patrons and police Clyde was able to elude all pursers through the amusement park. His luck continued to hold as he jumped alone onto a departing street car destination unknown.
He laid low for the next few days even though he was being celebrated as a folk hero.
With the passage of time and the drying of his canvas balloon, Adolph eventually dropped his charges against Clyde, the two agreeing to part company permanently.
Adolph resumed his summer performances without incident for several years. He later retired from his aerial exploits to become reacquainted with Mother Earth by becoming a successful trapper.
Clyde still boasted of his intention to become an aeronaut. His opportunity came when he was drafted into the Army on June 5, 1917. However he was discharged less than a year later with “flat feet and weak eyes”.
Too bad, with a good pair of eyeglasses and a balloon of his own he would have made a fine reconnaissance officer.