He was the founder of the British Balloon and Airship Club, an amazing and prolific writer, the first Brit to fly over the Alps by balloon, and the first to fly in a gas balloon over East Africa (documented in his books Throw Out Two Hands and The Dangerous Sort), an adventurer and explorer who never let mere caution get in the way of a really good idea. In 1955, he drove from Capetown to Cairo on a Triumph motorbike, and then, in 1980, from Cairo to Capetown on the same motorbike, this time accompanied by my brother, on another vintage Triumph motorbike (High Street Africa, Smith & Son). He found a previously unknown species of cave loach in Iran (Blind White Fish in Persia, A Persian Quarter Century). He sailed down the Amazon (Explorers of The Amazon, The Lost Lady of the Amazon), he traveled to every continent, and he had a love of learning that he shared with everyone*.
He worked with balloons and/or airships in the movies Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Charlie Bubbles, and Superman II. A consummate storyteller, his adventures became legend in our family, the last great adventure being his trip across the Atlantic on a raft, spending his 86th birthday at sea.
He has the Glaxo Prize for Science Writers, and The Royal Geographical Society's Cherry Kearton Medal for writing, and the Federation of Aeronautique Internationale's Diplome Montgolfier and the Diplome Tissandier, along with a Ballooning "Hall of Fame" award.
I remember sitting in an airport McDonald's with pinkleader and cathgrace and her lovely husband, telling them stories of his work on the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (he worked with the airship), and realizing that all the tables around us had become silent, listening to us. Going to the Imperial War Museum in London, and listening to Dad tell pinkleader and me the story of the Anglo Saxon's Jolly Boat (Survived!). The last time Bob and I saw him, he took us to Oxford and Balliol College, his alma mater for the day, ending with an impromptu and delightful cup of tea with his close friend, Robin Batchelor.
My childhood is full of amazing memories. His house in Bamburgh, Northumberland, was where we spent long summer holidays and frigid Christmas holidays, exploring castles, beachcombing, and climbing the Cheviot mountains. On weekends when he took us out from London, we'd go walking through the grounds and estates of Cliveden and Polesden Lacey. I've flown in a hot-air balloon, watched balloons take off over Holland, stood in the pitch-black dungeon of John of Gaunt's castle (Dunstanburgh), visited Holland and Belgium, found fossils in Dorset, explored chalk caves in Surrey, stayed in a haunted house, camped by a Roman fort, and a million more things because he showed them to us.
I have a number of his books; I am still completing my collection, as some of those books were published before I was born. Bob and I always got him to sign his books for us, but he would always sign them "Dad", rather than with his name. It was a running joke, one of many we had. I feel great sadness that he was not able to visit us in the US, a visit we had just started to plan for this year.
His book about his raft expedition will be published in February 2015.
*The rest of his books:
The Body (bestseller)
Beside the Seaside
The Good Beach Guide
The Human Pedigree
Sea Never Dry
A Sideways Look
The Great Rift
The Free Life (about my godfather)
Sex, Genes and All that
Animals on View
The Human Body
Best Friends (a children's book)
Which Animal are You? (ditto)