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Scott pilot began flying career in hot air balloon

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Stephenie Wade
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
This article is part of a feature series on military members and their families unique hobbies by Staff Sgt. Stephenie Wade

Did you know Scott Field was the first inland airship (hot air balloon) port in the nation?

In 1921, the Secretary of War authorized building a lighter-than-air station on Scott Field accompanied by new facilities to accommodate the new balloon/airship mission. The most notable addition was the new airship hangar constructed between Sept. 1921 and Jan. 1923. It was three blocks long, nearly one block wide and 15 stories high. The 28,510 foot American free balloon altitude record was even set at Scott in 1927.

In May 1937, the Chief of the Army Air Corps recommended ending all LTA activities and Scott's LTA-era came to an abrupt end, or did it?

The era of hot air balloon flying did not end as it became a hobby for many like Maj. Kenneth Weiner, 18th Air Force Chief of Special Plans and Programs by day, balloon aeronaut by night, has been helping pilot hot air balloons since age 14.

"It all started with my great grandfather who worked for Goodyear flying gas balloons and blimps," said Weiner. "He used to teach the Army Air Corps how to fly balloons back when we still used them. Our family has been in the ballooning business ever since."

Weiner got his official license to fly a balloon when he was 16. After that he began to accumulate flying hours by piloting a hot air balloon for his mother's balloon business in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.

"I accumulated so many hours the Air Force accepted them as flying hours which contributed toward my selection for pilot training and career," said the 12-year Air Force veteran.

"I am following in the footsteps of my grandfather and uncle who flew balloons and airplanes for the Air Force so long ago."

He said he flies as much as the weather permits, and he launches the balloon from his local park in O'Fallon, Ill., or backyard.

"I like launching from parks, because it is a public place, so there are no restrictions and when there are kids around they all like to help put the balloon away, so they can see it," he said.

It doesn't cost much to fly which is why he prefers it as a hobby and not a business. He also participates in balloon contests all over the world. Thus far, his balloon has traveled over New Zealand, France and Germany.

Weiner said he is proud of his heritage.

"Ballooning is the oldest form of manned flight," he said.

According to him, the history of hot air balloons goes back to the French who in 1783 launched the first "free flight" made by man. The United States used balloons in the Civil War and World Wars I and II as tools for warfare, surveillance, transportation and communication.

"As an Air Force pilot it is great to have this experience and history. I like to take pilots up who are used to flying brand new planes and tell them now you have to fly a balloon using only the wind and see the look on their face. I consider it to be more of an art form than a science."

Today, balloons are almost always named by their aeronaut owners. Weiner's balloon is named Independence because its colors are red, white and blue.
Editor's note: This article is part of a series about Airmen's hobbies.