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Julian Nott

Julian Nott: 1944 – 2019

How do you hold back a shooting star ​— ​that meteor that moves so fast in Earth’s atmosphere that it heats up and glows as it moves through our space?

That was Julian Nott, the effervescent balloon pilot and scientist, inventor, adventurer, lecturer, and writer, who was grounded in March … but only after a tragic earthbound accident.

Julian was in the process of changing the course of balloon history with the development of an entirely new system in which conventional ballast is replaced with cryogenic helium. Julian was flying the experimental balloon he designed to test high-altitude technology. Several hours after landing safely from a trial run in San Diego County, Julian returned into the balloon’s capsule to extract equipment. The capsule became loose and rolled 400 feet down the mountainside. He sustained a serious head injury and passed away peacefully two days later, with his beloved partner, Anne Luther, by his side.

During his long and extraordinary career, this British maverick had broken 79 World Ballooning Records, and 96 British Records. He is the first balloonist ever to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Aero Club, presented for outstanding achievement in aviation (previously awarded to only 34 luminaries, including the Wright brothers and Neil Armstrong). Julian was awarded the prestigious Montgolfier diploma and was the only balloonist ever elected to the elite Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

His personality was as buoyant as his equipment. His upbeat demeanor filled every gathering and conversation with lightness and energy. Julian did not suffer fools lightly, and he had that distinct British talent of articulation, with humor and a Monty Python-esque voice of exasperation. He loved a good rousing discourse on politics, and puns and parodies would elicit his jubilant, “Oh HO!” coupled with a conspiratorial laugh.

However, his bon vivant personality completely belied his brilliant, mind-boggling, thinking-outside-the-box genius. He did not just design balloons; he designed the capsule, the launching system, every aspect of how it would move and land. Julian was working on developing balloons for destinations throughout our solar system, and he was particularly enamored with Saturn’s moon Titan. He developed and flew a working prototype Titan balloon at minus 175 degrees Celsius, approximately the temperature of Titan’s atmosphere.

The theme that infused his work ​— ​and his lectures ​— ​was the concept he called “intellectual courage.” It was born from his study of the history of flight and through his own achievements. It is the courage to dare to dream of something outside our natural experience ​— ​outside the box ​— ​and then to pursue it passionately with all of our intellectual faculty, taking advantage of accumulated knowledge, calculating the risks, analyzing the data, and then boldly going where no man has gone before.

For instance, Julian postulated that the enormous geoglyphs (large designs on the ground) etched on Peru’s vast, barren Nazca Plains could have been viewed by men in balloons centuries ago. He designed and built a balloon made of natural materials available to Peruvians 1,500 years ago, and then piloted it in an open gondola up 350 feet ​— ​just to prove it could have been done.

To prove the potential for hybrid energy ​— ​using both solar and conventional heat sources ​— ​he designed and piloted the world’s first solar balloon across the English Channel.

His fearless determination to venture into terra incognito was never reckless derring-do. Julian was quick to point out that “everything in life is a risk. Even driving a car can carry an element of risk.” But, as Julian amply demonstrated, diligence and dedication could reduce your margin of error; he would engage only in carefully calculated maneuvers. He had never injured himself in ballooning; his last words to Anne after his successful landing, but before his accident, were “I don’t even have a scratch on me!”

His meticulous design engineering showed how it could be done ​— ​and then he went ahead to demonstrate it himself. Julian set a world record for the highest documented tandem skydiving jump ​— ​from 31,916 feet. And he was 72 years old when he jumped.

Julian Nott

However, breaking aeronautical records was not his main objective. “I hope to use science to advance and innovate,” he once wrote, “but setting a world record is indisputable proof of the success of a new design.”

His vision for attempting anything in the universe was infectious. I remember his lecture given at the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics at UCSB ​— ​a room overflowing with earnest scientists and several Nobel winners, each leaning forward, chin in hand, intently soaking up everything Julian had to postulate.

And yet he could speak to us laymen ​— ​a sold-out crowd of Channel City Club members, or the enthralled junior high students at local schools ​— ​and not only make us see what could be achieved but also inspire us to think that we could go out and do it ourselves.

The All-American Boy

After graduating Epsom College in Surrey, but before earning his master’s in physical chemistry from Oxford, Julian decided to spend part of his gap year touring America by Greyhound with a friend. Cut from the upper class in Britain, Julian naturally held a less-than-sterling opinion of “the colonies” and took for granted that America was a tad uncouth and bourgeois.

Once here, however, he had a dramatic conversion.

Julian was fascinated with what he heard and observed. And with his keen eye for observation, he definitely keyed into American culture and noted it offered not so much a perfectly classless society but one with class mobility. Through pluck and perseverance, one could move to another place of power, prestige, fame, and fortune. To Julian, America represented endless possibilities: an open society with far less bureaucracy or red tape than Britain. It suited everything in his own personality: independence, energy, enterprise, and achievement.

Brenda Lee’s hit at that time, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” struck a chord with Julian as the theme of his visit. The Golden Gate Bridge itself was a symbol of man dreaming and reaching out to “close the gap” and using applied technology to achieve this. (Julian actually trademarked his phrase “Math lets dreams take flight.”)

After that trip, Julian was always interested in returning to America and was subsequently thrilled to be proffered the U.S.A.’s O-1A visa, assigned to individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences who are internationally recognized. Julian worked with NASA and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratories); he had been a consultant on the design of the new U.S. Navy Advanced Blimps since 1986. His balloon Innovation —which he designed, built, and piloted solo to a world-record altitude of 55,134 feet in 1980 ​— ​was placed on permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in D.C.

In 2012, Julian became an American citizen and beamed for an entire week. Then he held a citizenship party at which he extolled the country’s virtues, where he pleasantly chided his friends, “Sometimes I think America is wasted on Americans!”

Did I mention his voice? Julian’s sonorous baritone was a thing of beauty, and he happily shared it at parties and at church. It conveyed his unabashed joy and gratitude for the world. People would stop him in public places, commenting on how happy he must be, as he was singing out loud without realizing it.

Perhaps Julian’s favorite all-time quote by Charles Lindbergh could adequately sum up his legacy: “Science, freedom, beauty, adventure: What more could you ask of life?” 

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