Texas Hot Air Ballooning History
Bill Murtorff told me that Marie Ella Davis and some friends formed a group and bought a Semco balloon in the mid ‘60s in Houston. It mostly did tethers. Every landing was an adventure. Forrest Patton bought a Piccard balloon in the late ‘60s. He flew it for a couple of years and then sold it to a guy in Kansas who printed Forrest’s logbook. Murtorff read it and said it was filled with humorous adventures. Also there was a Raven balloon in Dallas named the “Star of Texas” maybe owned by Robert Mayo. Karl Stefan also flew the balloon at several events.
Murtorf said the balloon prices back then were: Raven $5000, Piccard $4000 and Semco $3000. He bought the Piccard. In the spring of 1972 he was one of 13 pilots to fly in the first Albuquerque balloon event. Bill’s first student was Tom Gabel.
After finishing college at the University of Texas, Derek Howard and his friend Randy Rogers wanted a hot air balloon. However in 1970 there were no balloons to be found in Texas. Derek and Randy were not even sure what a balloon looked like. They spent a week making phone calls all over the country trying to find one; they even called Goodyear about helium bags and gondolas. Finally someone referred them to Raven Industries, a small company in South Dakota that made hot air balloons.
They started raising money immediately and with $6000 bought a Raven S-50A with all the equipment, including a trailer. Matt Wiederkehr of St. Paul, Minnesota was referred to them for training. Only one of them could afford to take the lessons. The winner of a coin flip would take lessons and then train the other. Back then only eight hours were required to get a commercial license and become an instructor. Randy won the coin flip. They just wanted to fulfill the minimum requirements so they could train on their own. F.A.A. Flight Examiners were eager to give them their check ride so they too could fly in a balloon. Like most balloon pilots in those days, Derek had to give the F.A.A. Examiner a five minute lesson on lighter-than-air craft before being given a check ride. Derek said he began instructing others the same day he received his license. He was learning by “seat of the pants” flying as he was teaching others.
His partnership with Randy Rogers ended when Randy left for medical school. Derek said it was exciting to have the only balloon around. The only other balloon in Texas was in Dallas. Derek started Southwestern Balloon School. The famed cartoonist Gilbert Shelton even designed his first advertising. He trained about thirty students from as far away as California and Iowa. Not all of them bought balloons, but soon there were four balloons in Texas. Some of Derek’s students were Bill Murtorff, Portis Wooley, Ray Galleger and Jack Jewett.
His favorite student was Murtorff. Bill was so enthusiastic about ballooning that Derek knew he would be around a long time. At that time Murtorff ran a surfboard shop in Corpus Christi until Hurricane Carla wiped him out (Bill had long white hair and a beard back then too). He would drive from Corpus to Austin for lessons. After all, Derek was the only pilot around who could train him. Murtorff might arrive at Derek’s door at 5:00 in the morning and drive right back if the weather was bad. He had about ten dry runs but never complained. Murtorff probably got half of his hours tethered in parking lots while Derek was also making money from a car dealer or shopping center. Murtorff wanted to get his license any way he could and Derek wanted to make as much money as he could. Derek put on the first hot air balloon race in Texas. In 1972 he invited ten balloons to a race at Bird’s Nest Airport in Manor, Texas. Also that year he made a short movie called Ballooning Over LBJ Country in which he flew over all the Highland Lakes. Derek Howard retired from ballooning in 1980 and is now an attorney in Austin.
My First Flight, by Bill Murtorff
The date was April 23, 1971. It was early in the afternoon and a group of us were sitting in Olmos Park in San Antonio with a large piece of red and yellow fabric spread out on the ground. This was a Raven AX-6 envelope. We weren’t just sitting in the park waiting for the wind to drop. We had needle and thread. Derek Howard, my instructor, and his girlfriend Alicia were sewing up the holes and I was in charge of finding them. After reading about hot air balloons in a Sunday supplement of the newspaper, it had taken me 6 mos. just to track down one of the two balloons in Texas at that time. After finding Derek, I had been trying to get into a balloon with him for a flight since November. Maybe you can remember seeing the balloon being shown inflating during the 1970 Texas-Arkansas football game. In Michigan Bruce Comstock had a similar patterned balloon and his wife Tucker went out to see if their’s had been stolen from their garage when they saw Derek’s on TV. By now, I had a Piccard balloon on order and it was to be ready in late May. If today was to be my first flight, I sure hoped I could handle the trip. I’d hate to lose the $4,000 I’d already paid for the balloon if fear got the best of me.
I had made the trip from my home in Corpus Christi to meet with Derek, a UT student in Austin, at least a dozen times. Sometimes I stayed for days waiting for the rain to stop, the wind to drop or the fog to lift. Sometimes I just turned around and returned home. It was a 200 mile trip and today I have no sympathy when people tell me about the long drive across Houston.
Back to the park. We had attached a banner for a local hard rock FM radio station. Derek had a contract and did a lot of promotions for them. It soon became the most popular radio station in San Antonio. Well, the time had finally come to grab the bull by the horns. The surface winds had died and the upper winds were out of the north. The inflation went smoothly. I climbed aboard and we were off. I was so awe-struck, I forgot to be scared. We passed by the Hemisphere Tower at about 1,000 ft. and waved at the people eating dinner. We climbed to 2,000 ft. and I don’t remember much except that we flew over Stinson airport on the south side of the city. The countryside in that area is rolling hills and mesquite. Derek came down to land in the Pleasanton area. We had gone over 20 miles in just over an hour. Derek deployed the large rope called a drag line to slow our speed and descent. Next he dropped a nylon line about 100 ft. long with a boat anchor attached. This was to snag a fence or something and stop the drag. Sounded good to me. It all worked and we slammed down to a stop. The crew found us and we packed up and went back to San Antonio. I’m really not sure how I felt about that flight. I do know that my next flight was on a tether and the next one was a contour flight with Don Piccard in Cal. It lasted 7 minutes. I returned to Texas and taught Derek how to really fly.
My First Balloon Flight - a Bill Murtorff Memory
by Glen Moyer, Editor, BALLOONING
It was 1976 – the year of the U.S. Bicentennial Celebration. I was working as a young television news reporter for KFDM-TV, Channel 6 News in my hometown of Beaumont, Texas. Sitting in the newsroom one evening and watching the three network monitors (yes, there were only CBS, ABC, and NBC at the time) a story on NBC caught my eye. There was a hot air balloon festival in Houston!
The TV monitor came to life with wonderful aerial footage of what seemed hundreds of balloons – I’m sure it was a few less than that, and I wanted to be there. As a young boy I had always been fascinated with flight – any kind of flight. I’d grown up reading my Dad’s collection of Dave Dawson War Adventure Series books. They were WWII era pulp fiction about an American teenager – Dave Dawson, and his British buddy, Freddy Farmer, who met on the opening day of the war and go on to become quite simply the greatest fighter pilots alive. I read and reread these books ‘til the covers fell off. (Today I have a full collection of this series including one of only a handful of known to exist copies of the final edition – Dave Dawson at Truk.) In 1976 as a young journalist I used my ‘media’ position to fly in anything I could. I wrangled rides in a Navy P3 subchaser over the Gulf. I flew inverted with the late Art Scholl – killed in the filming of Top Gun. I circled slowly into the sky with the Army Golden Knights parachute team – all the while being briefed on how to exit the aircraft in the event of emergency. Thank Goodness that never happened. A balloon ride? I had to have it!
My boss at KFDM-TV, Larry Beaulieu, is still there. He was a wonderfully tolerant man who allowed all us young reporters to explore any and every opportunity. So without even asking I saddled up with my then best friend and photographer, Harry Kingston, and off we headed to Houston about 3am the next (Sunday) morning in our shiny, official, Channel 6 News chevy cruiser.
I don’t recall how we learned where the festival site was – probably from the NBC story but we found our way there – Houston being about 80 miles west of Beaumont on I-10. When we exited the car the winds were howling. I knew nothing of balloons then or likely never would have left Beaumont that day. I flashed my media badge around to a few folks. Having Harry following me with that (then) big old sound film camera (nothing like the mini-digital things used today) certainly helped me gain access.
Soon we were introduced to a towering figure with a flowing white beard who looked more at home emerging from the Tennessee hills than Houston, Texas. His name was Bill Murtorff.
He lost no time in explaining to me that the winds were not going to allow a flight that day – at least not one that would include a young TV reporter. But he did offer a ride in the future, should I wish to return someday. I returned home disappointed – no story, no flight, but with the promise of a balloon ride in my pocket!!!
I don’t honestly recall how much time passed or what exactly prompted my return to Rainbow’s End Balloonport – except for the promise of that ride. But later that year, I did return, again in the wee hours of the morning. I do recall it was late in the year- November or December… I’ll explain that a bit further on.
The event was just a club flight and it seems 6 or so balloons were to fly. I was to ride with Murtorff’s crew at the start, and get a ride on a second hop. One of my strongest memories of this flight is being told that one of the balloons was brand new and on it’s first flight. This was a red, green and white peppermint spiral Piccard belonging to then strangers – but years later to be counted among my closest friends – the ballooning family of Sam Edwards. ( It may not have been the 1st flight, but that’s what I recall.)
Little else of the flight remains in my memory except that I did get into the balloon. It was a multi-colored, sort of a patchwork patterned Piccard named “Bilbo’s Bag.” The choice could not have been better for the young lady I was dating at the time had introduced me to the works of J.R.R. Tolkein – I was hobbit in heaven!
I do remember we lost touch with the chase crew because we crossed some river or stream or creek and they had to backtrack to find a way to cross. Meanwhile Bill and I landed atop a pile of rebar at the end of street in a neighborhood under construction. Bill kept the balloon inflated as a means of helping the crew find us. Now here’s why I remember it being late in the year – the holiday season…
As we waited for the chase crew a young boy and girl appeared from the house across the street. Still clad in pajamas they sheepishly approached us, never leaving the safety of their front yard and their eyes were as wide as saucers. Now I can’t be sure they’d ever seen a balloon before, but I’d bet my now cherished pilot certificate they’d never seen Santa Claus land one in front of their house!
Afterwards it was breakfast at an IHOP. I met a lot of people that day and I was struck by the bond they all seemed to share. I knew then, though it would take a few more years, that this was the sport for me.
In addition to the film I shot that morning – now long destroyed, I took a number of still photos. The negatives fell from their protective envelope and were run over at the camera store, tiny pebbles in the asphalt damaging them forever. I was able to salvage one and make a nice 8x10 print of “Bilbo’s Bag” that hung on the wall of my apartment in San Antonio where I would find myself working in radio and TV a few years later in 1979. Through the years, even that photo has been lost – my only keepsake of the flight today beyond my failing memories, is a 3x5 snapshot of that San Antonio apartment – my first away from home – and on the wall in that photo is the photo of “Bilbo’s Bag.”
Now, 30 plus years on, I’ve told this story many times, usually over the PA at a balloon event where I was announcing, but never committed it to print. Over those many years Bill Murtorff and Sam Edwards both became very good friends. I’ve asked both repeatedly to search their logbooks for any entry that might help me rediscover the date of that flight, but with no success. In his last years Bill would often chide me off stage with, “Have you told that story about me taking you on your first flight?” In the overall scheme or things, the date is not that important but it is troubling, that as I grow older, the memory of that day has begun to fade. It was a day, that quite simply, changed my life.
The first balloon club in Central Texas was in the 1970’s and named the Armadillo Aeronaut’s Ballooning and Breakfast Society.
It disbanded and a few years later some of that group with others formed The Central Texas Ballooning Association in 1984. It is still active today.
The original balloon club in Texas was the Tejas Aeronauts from Houston and then the Houston Balloon Pilots Association.