By GREG RUSSELL, Register Staff Writer
Gainesville Daily Register
The niece of Ed Yost, inventor of the modern hot-air balloon, said Friday she deems it unique that she lives in the city where an elaborate balloon festival unfolds this week.
“The Sky’s The Limit Balloon Spectacular” begins Friday at Gainesville Municipal Airport and doesn’t stop until Sunday — and Ann Hamilton said it wouldn’t be possible in the slightest without Yost, who died in 2007, and his creation.
“It makes me very proud that when I drive down the highway and see the billboards, I get to think, ‘Yeah, that’s because of Uncle Ed,’” Hamilton said Friday.
Hamilton, an English teacher at Gainesville High School and local resident since 2000, said she’ll be contributing to this week’s festival by way of memorabilia donations. She plans to pass along a container of balloon pins, a commemorative coin and a parcel of mail that Yost had carried aboard his “Silver Box” while attempting a transatlantic crossing, among others.
The items will be available for display during the festival’s gourmet dinner on Saturday, and will later be transferred to the Morton Museum of Cooke County.
“They’re just little gifts he had given me,” Hamilton said.
Yost was an Iowa native who died in 2007, and had conducted his first free flight of a hot-air balloon in 1960. According to biographical information, his flight experience began in the mid-1940s while enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. This led to a job at the high-altitude research division of General Mills, where he embarked on projects that involved balloons.
In 1952, the biography said, Yost and colleagues designed and sent a 3.2 million cubic-foot balloon that carried U.S. Navy instruments into the stratosphere to study cosmic rays.
“He was absolutely, truly a genius,” Hamilton said Friday. “And this is a man who did not go through a lot of formal education. He just had a mind that could look at a problem and find a solution. He was very mechanical, and it was amazing to me in talking to him and watching him develop things that he was able to come up with, and yet other people hadn’t thought of.”
Yost and three of his General Mills colleagues formed Raven Industries in 1956. While there, they received a Navy contract to build a reusable aircraft that could carry one man and the necessary fuel up to 10,000 feet for a span as long as three hours.
This led to the modern air balloon, and in 1962, Yost sold one of his balloons to an individual, leading to the initiation of ballooning as a sport.
“He did all that before I was even around,” Hamilton said.
The biography added that in the 1970s, Yost made solo flights across the English Channel and set a longstanding distance record of 2,740 miles — in his self-designed Silver Fox — across much of the Atlantic Ocean.
And it was during the 1970s and 1980s that he tailored his work for covert military operations by developing disposable balloons that delivered supplies to Vietnam troops and took photographs and dropped leaflets behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
Hamilton admitted Friday that her uncle wasn’t prone to giving formal interviews about his work. He wasn’t highly vocal about it, she said, until much later in life as a New Mexico retiree. “I think people who met my uncle, who just walked up and met him, found him very stern and off-putting,” Hamilton said. “But he wasn’t. He was really funny and he cared about people. He looked very stern. And his mind worked so quickly that he knew where most people were headed in their conversations before they got there. And so he seemed abrupt.”
Hot-air balloons are now a familiar sight, with their imagery common in movies and on posters, postcards and magazine covers. But Hamilton said this week’s festival will afford the curious a chance to step forward and witness the mechanics of her uncle’s innovation.
“I think that people don’t realize how unique the sport of ballooning is until they get up close and see one,” she said. “Until they get up close and see the burners work and see all the fabric up close. It’s something everyone should see, if they get an opportunity to get out.”
For more information on the balloon festival, visit www.theskysthelimit.org.