August 18 Soviet hard-liners launch coup against Gorbachev on this date in history

On this day in 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is placed under house arrest during a coup by high-ranking members of his own government, military and police forces.

Since becoming secretary of the Communist Party in 1985 and president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1988, Gorbachev had pursued comprehensive reforms of the Soviet system. Combining perestroika(“restructuring”) of the economy–including a greater emphasis on free-market policies–and glasnost(“openness”) in diplomacy, he greatly improved Soviet relations with Western democracies, particularly the United States. Meanwhile, though, within the USSR, Gorbachev faced powerful critics, including conservative, hard-line politicians and military officials who thought he was driving the Soviet Union toward its downfall and making it a second-rate power. On the other side were even more radical reformers–particularly Boris Yeltsin, president of the most powerful socialist republic, Russia–who complained that Gorbachev was just not working fast enough.

The August 1991 coup was carried out by the hard-line elements within Gorbachev’s own administration, as well as the heads of the Soviet army and the KGB, or secret police. Detained at his vacation villa in the Crimea, he was placed under house arrest and pressured to give his resignation, which he refused to do. Claiming Gorbachev was ill, the coup leaders, headed by former vice president Gennady Yanayev, declared a state of emergency and attempted to take control of the government.

Yeltsin and his backers from the Russian parliament then stepped in, calling on the Russian people to strike and protest the coup. When soldiers tried to arrest Yeltsin, they found the way to the parliamentary building blocked by armed and unarmed civilians. Yeltsin himself climbed aboard a tank and spoke through a megaphone, urging the troops not to turn against the people and condemning the coup as a “new reign of terror.” The soldiers backed off, some of them choosing to join the resistance. After thousands took the streets to demonstrate, the coup collapsed after only three days.

Gorbachev was released and flown to Moscow, but his regime had been dealt a deadly blow. Over the next few months, he dissolved the Communist Party, granted independence to the Baltic states, and proposed a looser, more economics-based federation among the remaining republics. In December 1991, Gorbachev resigned. Yeltsin capitalized on his defeat of the coup, emerging from the rubble of the former Soviet Union as the most powerful figure in Moscow and the leader of the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Via The History Channel

August 17 Balloon crosses the Atlantic on this date in history

The Double Eagle II completes the first transatlantic balloon flight when it lands in a barley field near Paris, 137 hours after lifting off from Preque Isle, Maine. The helium-filled balloon was piloted by Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman and flew 3,233 miles in the six-day odyssey.

Human flight first became a reality in the early 1780s with the successful development of the hot-air balloon by French papermaking brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. Soon balloons were being filled with lighter-than-air gas, such as helium or hydrogen, to provide buoyancy. An early achievement of ballooning came in 1785 when Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries became the first to cross the English Channel by air. In the 18th and 19th centuries, balloons were used more for military surveillance and scientific study than for transport or sport. As a mode of air travel, the balloon was supplanted by the self-propelled dirigible–a motorized balloon–in the late 19th century.

In the early 20th century, however, interest in sport ballooning began to grow, and an international trophy was offered annually for long-distance flights. Belgian balloonists dominated these early competitions. After World War II, new technology made ballooning safer and more affordable, and by the 1960s the sport enjoyed widespread popularity. The transatlantic flight, first accomplished by aircraft and dirigible in 1919, remained an elusive goal of elite balloonists.

From 1859 until the flight of the Double Eagle II in 1978, there were 17 unsuccessful transatlantic balloon flights, resulting in the deaths of at least seven balloonists. In September 1977, Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson made their first attempt in the Double Eagle I but were blown off course and forced to ditch off Iceland after traveling 2,950 miles in 66 hours. Abruzzo took several months to recover from frostbite suffered during the ordeal, but by 1978 he and Anderson were ready to make the attempt again. They added Larry Newman as a third pilot, and on September 11, 1978, the Double Eagle IIlifted off from Preque Isle, Maine.

The 11-story, helium-filled balloon made good progress during the first four days, and the three pilots survived on hot dogs and canned sardines. The only real trouble of the trip occurred on August 16, when atmospheric conditions forced the Double Eagle II to drop from 20,000 feet to a dangerous 4,000 feet. They jettisoned ballast material and soon rose to a safe height again. That night, they reached the coast of Ireland and on August 17 flew across England en route to their destination of Le Bourget field in Paris, site of Charles Lindbergh’s landing after flying solo in a plane across the Atlantic in 1927. Over southern England, their wives flew close enough to the balloon in a private plane to blow kisses at their husbands.

Blown slightly off course toward the end of the journey, they touched down just before dusk on August 17 near the hamlet of Miserey, about 50 miles west of Paris. Their 137-hour flight set new endurance and distance records. The Americans were greeted by family members and jubilant French spectators who followed their balloon by car. That night, Larry Newman, who at 31 was the youngest of the three pilots, was allowed to sleep with his wife in the same bed where Charles Lindbergh slept after his historic transatlantic flight five decades before.

In 1981, Ben Abruzzo, Larry Newman, Ron Clark, and Rocky Aoki of Japan flew from Nagashimi, Japan, to Mendocino National Forest in California in the first transpacific flight. American Joe Kittinger made a solo transatlantic balloon flight in 1984. In 1995, American Steve Fosset accomplished a solo transpacific flight. One of the last frontiers of ballooning was conquered in 1999, when Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Englishman Brian Jones completed the first nonstop trip around the world in a hybrid helium and hot-air balloon. They flew from the Swiss Alps, circumnavigated the globe, and landed in Egypt, having traveled more than 29,000 miles in 20 days.

Then, in 2002, American adventurer Steve Fossett became the first man in history to fly around the world solo in a hot-air balloon.

Via The History Channel