1997 marks the 50th anniversary for a number of important dates in aviation history. The most widely known of the 1947 "firsts" is Chuck Yeager's breaking the sound barrier in an experimental jet—the X-15.
Today two other famous firsts are celebrated on television by the "X-Files." In early July near the small southwestern New Mexico town of Roswell the first aliens from outer space were reported to have been taken into custody when their "flying saucer" crashed and burned.
The other surreal first had taken place two weeks earlier. Kenneth Arnold observed a strange sight while flying a search and rescue mission near Mt. Rainier in Washington state. After he landed in Pendelton, Oregon he told reporters that he had seen a group of flying objects. He described the ships as being "pie shaped" with "half domes" coming out the tops. Arnold coined the term "flying saucers."
For the last fifty years unidentified flying objects have dominated unexplainable sighting in the sky. Even sonic booms from jet aircraft can still generate phone calls to local emergency assistance numbers.
Today, debate about visitors from another galaxy captures the headlines. Yeager's historic flight will surely be noted with appropriate marketing opportunities. But 1947 is more notable for another first flight. In 1947, before Yeager, before aliens, before flying saucers, there was one reported flight that set the course of history for one segment of aviation. On February 16, 1947 Don Piccard lifted off from Minneapolis, Minnesota in a Japanese-made paper balloon. His goal was to stay aloft long enough to earn a balloon pilot rating. A little over two hours later, the mission accomplished, he landed near White Bear Lake, Minnesota.
That flight earned Piccard the first civilian balloon pilot rating to be issued after World War II. 50 years later the "Dean of American Ballooning" is still active in the development and promotion of lighter-than-air flight.
This month Balloon Life's special report focuses on Don Piccard's 50 years in ballooning. Our 8100 word article and 23 photographs barely scratch the surface of his life-long endeavors and adventures.
Throughout the last 50 years he has been at the forefront of promoting lighter-than-air flight. Soon after leaving the Navy at the end of the war, he tried to form a balloon club. When Yost made that first historic flight it was Piccard who saw the possibilities in the new thermal balloons. When you talk to Don you can hear in his voice the joy and delight that ballooning gives us all.
My first contact with Don was in 1983 soon after taking over as editor of Pilot News (today known as Skylines), the monthly newsletter of the Balloon Federation of America. He was my predecessor, fired from the volunteer position for too much openness and debate. Debate he thought would make for a better and richer sport.
Piccard has been a champion of ballooning for more than 50 years. He continues to be active in ballooning with his recent design of the Pleiades Seven, his contributions to this publication, and sharing his vast wealth of knowledge answering questions on the Internet.
Don Piccard - 50 Years in Ballooning. The journey begins on page 26.