Air Sports

A high-flying friendship: Connie Wolf and Tony Fairbanks

A piece of ballooning memorabilia has crossed continents to take up a new residence in the FAI Secretariat offices in Lausanne. The clock – decorated with a golden balloon on the glass casing – is a symbol of the firm friendship between two American balloon pilots, who also travelled to Switzerland during the ballooning careers: it was gifted by Connie Wolf to Tony Fairbanks, and has been donated to FAI by Tony’s son, Michael, a balloon pilot and historian.

Connie and Tony clock

During the early years (1950s) of the ballooning scene in the United States, a small group of ‘balloonatics’, as they called themselves, drove the sport forward and helped to put gas balloons in the public eye through their endeavours. Two of these pilots were Connie Wolf and Tony Fairbanks, who became close friends.

Connie Wolf

  • Born 1905 in Ontario, Canada.
  • Studied at the University of Toronto
  • Became a theatrical agent in New York
  • Was taught to fly her husband Alfred ‘Abby’ Wolf, an aviation lawyer
  • First flew a balloon in 1951 in Switzerland
  • Broke 25 records between 19-20 November 1961
  • Set up Wolf Aviation Fund to help pilot funding
  • Active pilot up to the 1980s
  • Died 1994
  • Inducted to US Ballooning Hall of Fame 2015

Tony Fairbanks

  • Born 1906, Newark, New Jersey, USA
  • Trained as an aviation engineer
  • Worked for Vertol Helicopters, Piasecki, Boeing
  • Four children: Joan, Antonica (Nica), Michael & Jean with his wife Mary Louise
  • First balloon flight 1931, first solo in 1935, licenced in 1936
  • First Lighter-than-air Free Balloon Pilot Examiner in USA
  • 1976 represented USA in 1st World Gas Ballooning Championship, Germany with son Michael
  • Died 1998
  • Inducted into CIA International Balloon & Airship Hall of Fame in 2010
  • Fairbanks Family Archives of Ballooning
     

Connie Wolf and Tony Fairbanks
Connie Wolf (left) & Tony Fairbanks (right)

A close-knit community

As a development of the Cleveland Balloon Club, the Ballooning Club of America (BCA) was founded just after World War II by a small group of aviators who shared the joy of floating silently above the earth in a gas balloon. In those days, the only fuel available was highly flammable ‘cooking’ gas – hydrogen was prohibitively expensive.   

In 1953, Film Director Mike Todd got in touch with the club to loan a balloon for the filming of ’Around the World in 80 Days’.  A balloon was painted and named ‘La Coquette’ and was sent to Hollywood. Tony acted as the technical consultant for the balloon sequences in the film, and he and Connie flew the balloon over the cities of London and Paris in 1955, to promote its release in Europe.

By 1960, sport ballooning in the USA was still in its early days, with licensed pilots not even numbering 15. In an effort to develop the activity, with the support of the USA National Aeronautic Association, the BCA became the Balloon Federation of America in 1961.

The pair’s major achievements

By the late 1950s, in comparison, European sport ballooning had been gaining significant momentum. The BCA received an invitation to enter the Holland Trophée du Ballon Libre in 1957. Connie and Tony participated, coming 5th with a flight time of four hours.

Connie was clearly a pilot with ambition. In 1961, she took the women’s ballooning endurance record from a Russian pilot, after spending 40 hours 8 minutes in the air in Texas, USA and travelling 586 km. Tony Fairbanks drove the chase vehicle and was the official observer who verified her records.

Connie Wolf gas balloon pilot
Connie Wolf

Shortly afterwards, in 1962, Connie became the first woman to fly cross the Swiss Alps. On 20 August, she took off from Murren, Switzerland, as part of the inaugural Fred Dolder Ballooning Week, landing at Lake Maggiore on the Italian border. Tony went on to participate in this event seven times, the most out of any American pilot.

In 1973 Tony returned from England, bringing with him to the club a Western Hot Air Balloon System. Tony liked hot air and flew in the 1973 First World Hot Air Balloon Championship in Albuquerque,  although Connie preferred to stay away from the noise and heat and stick with gas balloons. Both were also licensed fixed-wing pilots.

A ballooning legacy

Tony Fairbanks and Connie Wolf were both very active in promoting air sports in the USA, encouraging numerous pilots to try ballooning.

Connie and her husband, who were famous for inviting famous actors including Howard Hughes, Elizabeth Taylor, Ginger Rogers and Marlene Dietrich. The couple set up the Wolf Aviation Fund to help aviation projects seek funding and support.

Tony was an avid photographer who documented his aviation journey with numerous images. His son Michael wrote book entitled Down One Diamond in 1979 to share this important history. Although Tony was invited to participate in the Gordon Bennett Cup in Poland in 1939, political events rendered this impossible. Michael proudly fulfilled his father’s ambition by competing in this prestigious race in 1990.

Tony and Mike Fairbanks
Tony Fairbanks (left) with his son Mike

The FAI team is pleased to give a home to the ballooning clock in Lausanne, but would also be delighted to make it available for any museum upon request. 

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