When KKOB radio personality Bob Clark sits at the microphone, broadcasting his morning show live from the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, as he has for nearly 20 years, he brings with him a station connection going back to the very first balloon rally that led to the creation of the fiesta.
Back in 1972, the station, then known as KOB radio, was celebrating its 50th birthday. As the story goes, Clark relates, then station manager Dick McKee wanted to have some kind of an event to mark the occasion, and members of the station’s marketing department in conjunction with other employees came up with the idea of a hot air balloon rally.
Hot air balloons were not a common sight in Albuquerque at the time, but when you talked about piloting anything, Sid Cutter was the go-to guy, said Clark. In addition to flying fixed-wing aircraft, Cutter, who operated Cutter Aviation, also piloted hot air balloons and knew others in New Mexico and around the country who flew them, Clark said.
Learning that the largest assemblage of balloons to date had been 19 at an event in London, Cutter apparently wanted to best that and received commitments from 21 balloonists to be at the KOB anniversary event. “But in the days leading up to the event, there were very big storms in the Midwest that delayed some of the pilots who were planning to come in from other parts of the country,” Clark said.
As a result, on the morning of April 8, 1972, 13 balloons took off from an undeveloped, dirt lot at the northwest corner of Coronado Center, with a crowd of spectators, which by different accounts was estimated at 10,000 to 20,000.
“The fact that so many people showed up, and that so many balloonists were interested in being part of that event, had Sid Cutter and everyone kind of looking around and saying to themselves, ‘you know what, I think we’ve got something here,'” Clark said. “That’s basically what launched the Balloon Fiesta in those early years, and then it ultimately grew into what we know today. It’s amazing that just four years after that event, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta as an organization formed as a nonprofit. So this all came together pretty quickly, and it was only a few years later that the fiesta become the largest hot air ballooning event in the world.”
‘The box’ is born
Denise Wiederkehr McDonald had a close up view of that first balloon rally as a co-pilot in the balloon flown by her father, Matt Wiederkehr, while other f amily members were on the ground crew.
“I was 15 at the time,” she said. “He started teaching me to fly when I was 12, but back then you couldn’t solo until you were 16.”
The family was from Minnesota and knew Cutter through their ballooning contacts and were excited to come to Albuquerque for the event.
“It was really fun for me,” said Wiederkehr McDonald. “I was a teenager and it was my first time in Albuquerque and there were 13 balloons so this was one of the larger events I’d been to. I was excited to go to Old Town and wanted the whole experience.”
The centerpiece of that first rally, she said, was a roadrunner and coyote race in which one balloon, designated as the roadrunner, launches with the other balloons, the coyotes, in pursuit. The winner is the balloon that lands the closest to where the roadrunner set down – which in this race was in the area north of Montgomery and east of Juan Tabo, according to Dick Brown, a member of the fiesta’s Heritage Committee.
The Wiederkehrs were in first place for a while, he said, until another Minnesota couple, Don and Wilma Piccard, flying separate balloons, displaced them. Official records from that race show Don as the winner, Wilma in second place and the Wiederkehrs third.
It was during that race, Wiederkehr McDonald said, that the wind pattern, now known as “the box,” was first noted when the Piccards were each able to come around for a second shot at a landing.
As the fiesta grew in subsequent years, the Wiederkehrs returned regularly. Wiederkehr McDonald, who now lives in Colorado, became a balloon pilot, but gave it up in exchange for a 37-year career as a pilot for United Airlines, from where she recently retired.
She and a group of relatives and friends plan to be present for the 50th fiesta.
“It brings back so many great memories,” she said.
Brown, an electrical engineer by training, was a camera-wielding spectator at the ’72 rally. That event “got me hooked on ballooning, and I’ve been involved ever since,” said Brown, 81, who for a number of years piloted his own balloon. His Kodachrome images of that first rally are still used as a reference source by balloon historians when writing about the evolution of the fiesta.
“The crowds were held back by some ropes, so there wasn’t the intermingling of spectators and balloons on the launch field like we have now at Balloon Fiesta Park,” Brown said. Further, city officials were unprepared for the size of the crowds, “and only sent out two mounted patrolmen.” Luckily, the crowd “behaved themselves.”
The reaction to the rally from the crowds and the pilots told Sid Cutter from the get-go that hot air ballooning in Albuquerque “had incredible potential,” said Jewell Cutter, who was married to the late aviator. “He dreamed very big and had a huge ability to see way outside the box,” she said.
The sport of hot air ballooning is physical, involves a lot of heavy lifting and can be exhausting, particularly during fiesta, Jewell Cutter said. “You’re on the field from 4 a.m. sometimes until midnight,” depending on the various flying events, balloon glows and other activities. “I can remember saying to Sid, ‘this is really, really hard work.’ And he said to me, ‘but look how many people we made happy today.'”