ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – What started as a single-day radio promotion in 1972 is now the world’s largest hot air ballooning event. This year’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta will feature over 700 balloonists from all over the world. However, in the first Balloon Fiesta, the event only had 13 pilots.
In 1972, KOB 770 AM Radio was having its 50th anniversary, and General Manager Tom McKee urged Sid Cutter to organize a ballooning event to celebrate. In the book, The World Comes to Albuquerque: The Dream Takes Flight, Dick Brown writes that in 1971, Cutter purchased his own hot air balloon as well as founded the Albuquerque Aerostat Ascension Association (AAAA or Quad A).
Paul Smith, executive director of Balloon Fiesta, says that initially, Cutter was able to get 21 pilots to commit to coming out. “Unfortunately, there was a snow storm in the midwest, and a lot of the balloons that had committed weren’t able to get here [to Albuquerque],” Smith says.
The event was billed as The KOB Radio and Television International Balloon Festival & Rally and took place on April 8, 1972. The 13 balloons inflated in the parking lot of Coronado Center and participated in what is known as a Hare & Hound Race – modified as a more southwestern “Roadrunner & Coyote” race. Sid Cutter was in the “roadrunner” balloon and the other 12 pilots were the “coyotes” trying to catch him.
According to the Balloon Fiesta’s online records, by the next year, the number of pilots grew to 111, including 7 of the original 13.
Smith says those original pilots were trailblazers. “For those initial, for the pioneers, think about driving across the country with your equipment, flying in some place they’d never been before, and it had to take some guts, and they were definitely adventurous,” he says.
The Original 13 Balloon Fiesta Pilots
(Images and information below courtesy Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta)
Sid Cutter (Albuquerque, NM) – Founder of the Balloon Fiesta, Albuquerque’s “Father of Ballooning,” flew the Roadrunner balloon on that first day. An avid pilot, Sid held some of the highest aviation awards, including the 1975 Federation Aeronautique Internationale’s Montgolfier Diploma for service to sport ballooning and the 2009 FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for flight safety. Sid would fly during Balloon Fiesta up until he died in 2011. He was 77.
Bill Cutter (Phoenix, AZ) – Sid’s older brother Bill flew the red, white, and blue Raven balloon at the first Balloon Fiesta. Bill was an Albuquerque native, an Army veteran, and co-owner of Cutter Aviation. Bill died at the age of 86 in 2018.
Karl Stefan (Palestine, TX) – Karl came to the Balloon Fiesta already with some balloon accolades under his belt. In 1956, he made his first gas balloon flight, followed by his first hot air balloon flight in 1961. Karl would break an altitude record for ballooning when he broke over 31,000 feet in the early 1970s. Karl died at the age of 102 in 2018.
Gene Dennis (Grand Blanc, MI) – Gene almost didn’t make it to the first fiesta, as his connecting flight out of Chicago was canceled due to weather, but he drove to Detroit and took a direct flight to Albuquerque to make it in time. Dennis would continue to fly at the Balloon Fiesta over the years as well as visit in 2010, where he was able to visit the balloon museum and check out the original launch site at Coronado. Gene lives with his wife in Grand Blanc.
Oscar Kratz (Tucson, AZ) – Flyer of one of the coyote balloons in the first Balloon Fiesta. He joined the Air Force in 1954 and served as an aircraft mechanic. Oscar started a flying school at Ryan Airfield near Tucson and was an early hot air balloon instructor. Oscar died at the age of 47 in 1980.
Brent Stockwell (Daly City, CA) – When Albuquerque was holding their first major balloon event, Brent was trying to get the first FAA-approved balloon flight school in the U.S. off the ground. Starting in 1974, Brent operated an FAA-certified balloon repair station. Brent died in 2021 at the age of 90.
Dennis Floden (Flint, MI) – In 1973, Dennis earned the distinction of becoming the world’s first champion balloonist after competing on the U.S. team at the First World Hot Air Balloon Championships. Dennis designed Kellogg’s first Tony the Tiger balloon and led the team in operating one of the first special=shape commercial balloons.
Bill Murtorff (Corpus Christie, TX) – Bill earned his pilot license in 1971 and he and his wife, Mary, would participate regularly in the first 25 Balloon Fiestas. Bill died in Mexico in 1998 at the age of 64. The BFA Bill Murtorff Spirit of Ballooning Award was created in his honor.
Carter Twedt (Carson City, NV) – Carter was an American Airlines pilot and flew a yellow Raven AX-6 balloon during the first Balloon Fiesta. The balloon would later be used in the Disney film “High Flying Lowe.” After retiring from the airline, Carter continued to fly paragliders. His wife, Peggy, is also a licensed balloon pilot.
Don Kersten (Fort Dodge, IA) – A lawyer and a veteran of the Air Force, Don had also been a licensed balloon pilot since 1965. Don would serve as the president of the Balloon Federation of America for two terms; from 1969 to 1971 and from 1975 to 1977. Don was instrumental in making Albuquerque the home of the First World Hot Air Balloon Championships and, with the help of Sid Cutter and Tom Rutherford of KOB radio, formed World Balloon Championships, Inc. to bid for the honor. No other city had made a bid and Albuquerque secured the spot of host city for the 1973 championships. Don passed away at the age of 73 in 1998.
Don Piccard (Newport Beach, CA) – Don started his own balloon manufacturing company in Newport Beach in 1964. In the first Balloon Fiesta, Don’s balloon was the last to launch but ended up in first place as he landed only 184 feet away from Sid’s deflated Roadrunner balloon. Don would return to Minneapolis, where he spent the majority of his life, in 1980 and died in 2020 at the age of 94.
Wilma Piccard (Newport Beach, CA) – Don’s wife, Wilma, is also an accomplished balloonist. She set the A-1 distance record for male and female pilots in a single-cell mylar balloon. At the first fiesta, Wilma flew a balloon named Gypsy, a Piccard AX-6 balloon, and finished second, 206 feet from Sid’s Roadrunner. Wilma lives in Minneapolis.
Matt Wiederkehr (St. Paul, MN) – Matt was one of the first 10 hot air balloonists in the United States. He and his daughters, Denise and Donna, set over 40 world ballooning records. At the first Balloon Fiesta, Matt flew with Denise in Matt’s blue and white Raven One balloon and finished third behind the Piccards. Matt passed away at the age of 90 in 2019.