Sunday May 20, 2012

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A helium shortage is threatening to deflate plans for the July 4 launch of a manned balloon like ones used in the Civil War to guide Union artillery against Confederate positions.

The Intrepid is a centerpiece of the Genesee Country Museum’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Hot-air balloon record holder Sir Richard Branson and "The Civil War" filmmaker Ken Burns are among those who’ve publicly praised the museum’s idea to replicate one of the gas balloons used by troops to telegraph intelligence that allowed ground forces to train guns on enemies they couldn’t see.

But with the Intrepid’s scheduled debut a little more than six weeks away, museum officials fear the $400,000 one-of-a-kind project will fall flat because they haven’t been able to find a helium supplier to get it off the ground.

"As far as we can ascertain, there’s just a national shortage in the supply chain," said Peter Arnold, the western New York museum’s president and chief executive. "Every which way we turn, suppliers are saying, ‘We haven’t got it to give you right now."’

Helium has been in short supply because of the 1996 Helium Privatization Act, which called on the federal government to sell most of its helium reserves by 2015. New legislation before Congress would amend the act to require maintaining a roughly 15-year supply for defense and scientific uses.

But that’s no help for the Intrepid, which needs about 50,000 cubic feet, or about half a tanker truck, to take flight. Unlike hot-air balloons, the Intrepid will remain inflated so one fill-up is all that’s needed.

"It’s a drop in the bucket, really," Arnold said. Museum officials have spent weeks calling local suppliers, who all say they’re doing their best, he said. They’ve also begun reaching out to members of the congressional delegation with hopes of dipping into some of those reserves being sold off.

The museum, which will also have a large Civil War encampment, plans to offer tethered rides in the balloon, taking passengers 300 feet in the air.

The hydrogen-powered Civil War balloon corps was begun in 1861 and went into action on Sept. 24 that year when its commander, Thaddeus Lowe, ascended to more than 1,000 feet near Arlington, Va., and telegraphed intelligence on Confederate troops at Falls Church, Va., more than three miles away. In all, seven balloons were built.

With no thought yet to camouflage, Arnold said, the varnished silk Intrepid was emblazoned with a 25-foot-wide picture of an eagle holding a portrait of Gen. George McClellan on one side and the balloon’s name in 5-foot-high letters on the other. The five-passenger basket was painted bright blue with white stars.

The construction of the replica is the subject of a planned documentary by Rochester Institute of Technology Professor Malcolm Spaull that will be shown on public television in Rochester and promoted nationwide.

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Online:

Genesee Country Museum: http://www.gcv.org