Balloonist salute years in Indianola

The history of the National Balloon Championship played its greatest hits with long time balloonists inflating vintage balloons Saturday on the original Simpson College field for the event.

It looked a little like the 1970s Saturday night.

The world’s biggest gumball machine was nestled cheek by jowl with the Montgolfier balloon. The Merope II was floating nearby. The A&W root bear balloon inflated for a while as the Charlie Brown crew waited for some open space. And Mr. Peanut looked over it all.

It wasn’t the 70s though.

It was the culmination of an evening celebrating the early aeronauts behind hot air ballooning — in Indianola and across the world.

The evening started with a dinner for about 80 people at Simpson College. It was a night for stories — like that of Don Lamb, who said he crewed for some of the early pilots when they came to Indianola in 1970 and by 1974, bought his own balloon.

“I was hooked on hot air,” he recalled. “Indianola and Simpson have become a major part of our lives because of what they’ve done. They housed us, they fed us, they supported us. It was great.”

The National Balloon Championship was first held in Indianola in 1970, when about 16 hot air balloons set up Simpson’s intramural field in an elimination round before the finals at the Iowa State Fair.

Saturday,  Simpson President Marsha Kelliher presented an award to Gary Ruble, thanking him for his effort to bring, and keep, balloons in Indianola. Ruble trained a number of local pilots after receiving his own pilot’s license.

“Because of him, there will be several pilots flying for the skies tonight,” she said. “Thank you for all you have done for so many and showing us that we don’t need wings to fly.”

And the Balloon Federation of America presented Stephen Langjahr of California, an early balloonmeister at the National Balloon Championship, with the Ed Yost Master Pilot Award.

But mostly, it was a nice to reminisce.

Langjahr recalled that while he never took a class at Simpson Colllege, he did bunk there during the early years of the Championship.

“I really appreciate the dormitory experience that I had, that I never had at other colleges,” he said of the then-unairconditioned dorms where pilots and their families were offered lodging. “I say that they still offer dormitories at a cut-rate price here if you're willing to go without air conditioning.

“Those were fun, fun, periods at Simpson College.”

The pilots and their families reminded each other of the letters that balloon pilots would carry aloft, and then sign, indicating that the letter or postcard had gone up in a balloon. There was the entry form for the Championship filled out by Wilma Piccard, the only woman in the early group of balloons. In the space where it said “time in balloon,” she had written a question mark. On the space next to total time in balloon, she left it blank.

“That’s the way it was then,” recalled Langjahr. “Who really had time in balloons?”

Hot air ballooning had only started to become popular in the late 1960s. When 16 balloons stretched out on the Simpson College field it seemed like a lot because it was — “it was almost all the balloons that were in the country,” said Langjahr.

It was a time for experimenting — learning what made the balloon work better, what kinds of contests to fly and even to try different kinds of balloons. One year, said Langjahr, the Championship spent $400 for helium.

“So that Wilma Piccard could fly up in a garbage bag of a balloon,” he recalled. “She had never been in a gas balloon. She asked Don Piccard (her husband) how she was supposed to fly it and he told her to pretend it was a hot air balloon.

“She flew it for about 20 minutes, which was a record,” he said. “Because there was no record before then. I remember being so awestruck at her courage to get into this thing and fly off.”

Steve Kersten of Fort Dodge talked about his father, Don, who bought the first hot air balloon in Iowa after his wife told him he had to stop parachuting. He named the balloon after her to overcome any potential objections.

It was a time to remember people who were not at the reunion — including Wilma Piccard, who is more than 90, and Matt Wiederkehr, who was one of the first 10 balloon pilots in the country. Wiederkehr passed away in 2019, but his wife, Bobbie, and daughter Donna, came to Indianola.

“It’s just a great time to see old friends,” said Donna. “To honor him, I’m wearing his jumpsuit and flying his balloon. Indianola has been such a big part of our life and our family and our heart. How could we not be here?”

 The reunion ended Sunday with the induction of five new members into the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame, which is housed at the National Balloon Museum in Indianola.

The 2020 inductees included Coy Foster of Dallas, Texas, who set more than 60 world records in hot air, gas balloons and airship, including five records in a single flight. He developed his medical skills working with NASA during the Gemini and Apollo space programs.

The other 2020 inductee is Mark Sullivan of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who has been the US delegate to the FAI Balloon Commission for 18 years. in 1986, he started Top Gun, the largest hot air balloon competition club in the United States to teach pilots to compete so they could participate in the U.S. Nationals and other top tier events.

The 2021 inductees include Julian Nott of Santa Barbara, Calif., who has broken 79 World balloon records and 96 British records across many classes, from hot air to helium super pressure and more. But Nott said that setting records was never the main goal.

“Setting a world record is indisputable proof of the success of a new design,” he said.

Nott died in 2019 after suffering multiple injuries from an accident after a successful flight and landing of an experimental balloon in Warner Springs, Calif.

Bert Padelt of Barto, Penn., also was inducted. Padelt is a balloon builder who has helped build a number of balloons that have set records, including the second balloon to fly across the United States and the Pacific Ocean and the third gas balloon to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. He served as systems director for Steve Fossett’s attempts to fly around the world and built the gas balloon that led the 80th anniversary Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The final inductee is Rich Jaworski, who pioneered hot air ballooning in Nebraska. Jaworski has accrued more than 2,800 of flight time since getting his license in 1972. He has carried more than 7,000 passengers and piloted more than 40 consecutive successful marriage proposal flights. He also has generated more than $300,000 for a variety of charitable organizations.

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