ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Editor’s Note: To celebrate 2013’s “Year of Italian Culture,” Davide Arminio, an Italian journalist studying in Albuquerque, is blogging on instances in which Italians and their descendants have helped shape New Mexico and how Italian skills and heritage have spread to the Land of Enchantment. Here, he writes about Ben Abruzzo, the son of Italian immigrant Luigi Abruzzo.
On a morning in August 1978 three men in a hot air balloon landed on French ground, a few miles from Paris. A crowd of people waving and cheering surrounded the gondola; a bottle of champagne was opened. Two hours later the trio met their wives at the American ambassador’s residence in Paris, while hundreds of Frenchmen crowded the street in front of the building. They had taken off six days before from Marshfield, Mass., and had succeeded in the first-ever Atlantic balloon crossing.
They were Maxie Anderson, Larry Newman and Ben Abruzzo.
The latter became one of the most famous citizens of Albuquerque and contributed greatly to its development and broad celebrity, founding a dynasty of balloonists that broke record after record from the 70s and beyond.
Yet, the Abruzzos were one of those doomed families whose celebrity and good-fortune was tragically balanced by an unpredictable fate.
Ben Abruzzo arrived in Albuquerque in 1952, stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base. “To those who observed him, Ben was considered a risk-taker of the highest degree,” reads a report in Pamela Salmon’s book, “Sandia Peak.” What’s more, she writes, “He always looked forward to tomorrow and the challenges that each day would bring. And if the challenges didn’t present themselves, he would find them.” When he left military service, he joined the La Madera Ski Company at Sandia Peak, where he met Bob Nordhaus. Their rapport became a long-lasting friendship and brought both families into one of the most successful business ventures in Albuquerque history, leaving landmarks that still stand today.
In the late 1950s they both began imagining a tramway that climbed Sandia Mountain and directly linked the city with the increasingly popular ski resort. They both had European experiences where trams carried thousands of skiers in the winter and vacationers in the summer.
“The concept was considered madness by almost everyone we were associated with,” Abruzzo said later in an interview quoted in Salmon’s book. But Nordhaus and Abruzzo were men of solid bravery, and they forged on.
Construction began in 1964. Ben Abruzzo himself personally helped in the work. Two years later, on May 7, 1966, Gov. Jack Campbell and thousands of Albuquerque citizens boarded the cars for the first trips on the tram. Nowadays the Sandia Peak Tramway carries about a half million tourists and skiers a year.
As the 1960s turned into the ’70s, Ben Abruzzo’s interests moved gradually to ballooning. Albuquerque’s interests did as well. In 1972 the first Balloon Fiesta took place, as an outcome of a 1971 birthday party in an airport hangar where a balloon was inflated.
“At the time, the sport had only a handful of participants, and its mysteries tapped Abruzzo’s curiosity, a curiosity that soon became an obsession,” wrote Salmon. Abruzzo was already a skillful airplane pilot and simply couldn’t limit himself to flying quietly over New Mexico. With Maxie Anderson, president of a local mining company, he started planning a hazardous adventure – flying over the Atlantic Ocean from America to Europe. The chosen year was 1977 and it marked a half century after Charles Lindbergh’s Lone Eagle unforgettable solo flight to France. The balloon was therefore called “Double Eagle.”
The first attempt failed because of a sudden storm and the two men had to land off the coast of Iceland. They organized a new attempt the following year, adding to the crew the young Larry Newman. The balloon, named Double Eagle II, left the American coast on Aug. 1 and landed victoriously on Aug. 7 just a few miles from the aerodrome where Lindbergh had landed in 1927. At the American embassy, in the midst of the jubilant crowd, they were greeted by a tiny woman.
The account of that meeting is narrated in Charles McCarry’s book “Double Eagle.” “‘I am Jacqueline Citroën,’ she said in English, ‘and I was the little girl who gave Charles Lindbergh his first bouquet… so I wanted to be the first to greet you.'”
After a rally of interviews, appearances and meetings, even with President Jimmy Carter at the White House, they finally returned to Albuquerque. “They were greeted by a cheering throng of tens of thousands of their fellow citizens… Six hot-air balloons lined the triumphal route from the airport to the new Civic Center,” McCarry’s book narrates. And the Albuquerque Journal reported that “Abruzzo, who was the first of the balloonist to speak, said he hopes the flight will help promote the betterment of the city.” Congress awarded them with a special gold medal granted to few men before, among whom were Charles Lindbergh and Neil Armstrong.
For Ben Abruzzo the Atlantic was not enough. In 1981 he and his crew boarded the Double Eagle V and crossed the Pacific Ocean from Nagashima, Japan, to California — 5.768 miles in 84 and a half hours. It was the first time that a manned balloon flew over the widest ocean on Earth. For Ben, success brought honors and awards from all over the world, and set a benchmark for himself and for Albuquerque in the world ballooning community.
But it all came crashing down on Feb. 11, 1985. Abruzzo, 54 at the time, was piloting a Cessna to Aspen, Colo. With him were his wife and three other women. Shortly after taking off from Albuquerque’s Coronado Airport, the plane lost altitude and crashed between Interstate 25 and Paseo del Norte. No one survived.
The legacy of Ben Abruzzo was so strong and important for the Duke City that the new International Balloon Museum, opened in 2005, was named after him and Maxie Anderson. There, the gondolas of Double Eagle II and Double Eagle V are displayed, along with the instrumentation, maps, gears, videos and photos of those and other legendary air odysseys.
Soon, however, another Abruzzo stepped up to the challenge. Ben’s youngest son Richard became another distinguished balloonist. “I flew balloons with Dad a lot when I was young,” Richard remembers in Pamela Salmon’s book. “One day… we landed and he just jumped out without warning. He said ‘Go ahead, fly’… He’d taught me well and knew I was ready. I was prepared and flew for a pretty long time.”
Truly, Richard flew a ‘pretty long time’ during his entire life. In 2003 he accomplished the first transcontinental solo flight from San Diego, Calif., to Waverly, Ga. He competed in dozens of races around the world and achieved a remarkable number of victories and new records. In 2004 he and Carol Rymer Davis, a local radiologist, won the Gordon Bennett race, the most famous long distance gas balloon competition.
In 2010 the pair joined again to fly in the Gordon Bennett. Over the Adriatic Sea in late September, contact with their balloon was lost. On Dec. 6, the bodies of Richard, 47, and Carol, 66, were found by fishermen off the Italian coast, just miles from the coastline of the same country that the Abruzzo family had left behind some 80 years before, on their path to business, wealth and celebrity in New Mexico.
- The new Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum during a press conference at Balloon Fiesta Park on Monday September 19, 2005.