Picture this: you’re a pilot, cruising through the air when suddenly an unknown object appears in your peripherals.
What is that?! you scream to yourself, trying your best to keep it cool. You’ve heard about pilots having close encounters with UFOs before, and you’ve even read about WWII pilots experiencing pesky gremlins. But never in your life could you have planned for this experience. A giant cat and pig both flying your way? What utter madness!
If you were a pilot flying over New York around the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade prior to 1932, this could have happened to you.
Macy’s Parade Balloons
The giant, helium-filled balloons are an iconic part of Thanksgiving for millions of Americans across the country. They’ve been making yearly debuts since 1927 when parade organizers replaced real zoo animals with inflated, larger-than-life, cartoon versions. Felix the Cat was the first character balloon. Other early balloons included a 21-foot-tall human behemoth, a 60-foot-long dinosaur, and a 25-foot dachshund.
In the early days of the annual parade, balloon handlers would release these giant beasts into the air when the parade concluded. While many of the balloons were filled with good old regular air, some were built around helium balloon bodies. These were designed to slowly release their air. Safety valves ensured the balloons could float above New York for a few days. In 1929, Macy’s started offering a $50 reward to people who returned balloons.
Up in The Air
When things go up, they eventually come down. We know this because of gravity. Parade organizers likely imagined the hoard of giant balloons would return to the Earth peacefully after floating for a couple of days and drifting maybe one hundred miles or more into a field, maybe somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. But thanks to Murphy’s law, we also know that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.
When Pigs Fly
In 1931, after the parade concluded and organizers released the balloons, errant balloons did exactly what you might expect errant balloons to do: disobey human expectations. A giant hippo came within inches of the Empire State Building where a few small planes had been flying in anticipation of the balloon release. Felix the Cat also soared above the Empire State Building and Jerry the Pig wasn’t too far behind.
Aviator Colonel Clarence Duncan Chamberlin, an ace pilot and barnstormer, happened to be flying in the general vicinity at this time. He had departed Floyd Bennet Airport with several passengers when they encountered the cat and pig heading their way.
According to news reports, Chamberlin managed to lasso the pig and snared the cat by his wing, but Felix broke loose. Felix later suffered a horrific balloon death when he got caught in a high-tension wire in New Jersey and burst into flames, according to a resident witness.
Add balloon wrangler to Chamberlin’s list of accomplishments, which include piloting the first Transatlantic passenger flight and winning the Orteig Prize.
1 Tom Kat vs. 2 Pilots
The following year, having learned from Chamberlin’s close encounter with the balloon kind, Macy’s warned pilots to stay away from the balloons. They also stated no pilots would win a prize for recovering them. But aren’t rules meant to be broken?
On November 24, 1932, at approximately 4 pm (about a half hour post-balloon release), 22-year-old student pilot Annette Gipson and her instructor, Hugh Copeland, were flying when they came upon one of Macy’s balloons: a 60-foot-long, yellow-striped Tom Kat. Hoping for a jugular shot, Miss Gipson steered the plane right into the cat.
Tom Kat’s fabric wrapped around the plane’s left wing, causing the aircraft to go into a tailspin. Gipson shut off the ignition in the hopes it would prevent a fire when the plane crashed. Copeland switched seats and took control of the aircraft. They were only about 250 feet above rooftops when the instructor turned on the ignition. Tom Kat, tattered from his encounter with the plane, blew away. The Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Branch cited both Copeland and Gipson for violating federal regulations forbidding stunting over congested areas.
After this incident, Macy’s stopped releasing the balloons at the end of the parade. If we’re being honest, discontinuing this practice is probably safer for everyone—including the environment.
Interested in aeronautic ballooning? Just out our posts on A Brief History of Military Observation Balloons and The Montgolfier Brothers and the Rise of Balloonomania!