As a boy, he waved as his parents floated away in a hydrogen-filled balloon, up to the very edge of space.
And throughout his long life, Don Piccard became a balloon pioneer himself, an innovator, manufacturer and champion of hot-air ballooning as a sport.
The National Balloon Museum in Indianola, Iowa, calls him “the father of modern hot-air ballooning.”
Piccard, who spent much of his life in Minneapolis, organized the country’s first hot-air balloon race, launching from a frozen White Bear Lake as part of the 1962 St. Paul Winter Carnival. He died Sept. 13 at the age of 94.
“His most powerful legacy is in helping to develop the sport of hot-air ballooning and making it affordable for families to enjoy,” said his wife, Willie Piccard, a fellow balloon pilot.
Piccard was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, to a famous family of air and deep-sea explorers. When Don was an infant, his family moved to the United States, where his father, Jean Felix Piccard, taught at MIT. In 1934, Piccard’s mother, Jeannette Piccard, became the first woman to reach the stratosphere, piloting a balloon nearly 11 miles up, along with her husband, who was studying cosmic rays.
Piccard, who was 8, recalled waving as they took off in Dearborn, Mich., and feeling jealous of his dad’s pet turtle Fleur de Lys, who got to go along on the flight.
One of his cherished boyhood memories was meeting air pioneer Orville Wright, who came to see one of his mother’s flights. “He shook my hand very hard. Rattled my backbone. He knew that I would want to remember,” he told Wisconsin public access station River Channel.
The Piccard family moved to Minneapolis in 1936 when Jean Piccard began teaching at the University of Minnesota. Piccard attended the Blake School, the University of Minnesota and Swarthmore College.
During World War II, he was a balloon and airship rigger in the U.S. Navy. In 1947, at 21, he made a record-breaking solo flight from Minneapolis to North Dorr, Mich., in a hydrogen-filled Fu-Go balloon that the U.S. had recovered from Japan during the war.
After serving at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey during the Korean War, Piccard returned to Minnesota in 1958, working for G.T. Schjeldahl in Northfield to develop and engineer a Mylar balloon communications satellite. On clear summer nights, his family could spot the satellite from the dock of their Lake Vermilion cabin.
In 1963, Piccard became the first, with Ed Yost, to pilot a hot-air balloon over the English Channel.
Piccard spent several decades in Newport Beach, Calif., where he founded Piccard Balloons. He made innovations that increased the crafts’ safety and promoted ballooning as a sport, taking Johnny Carson for a ride and appearing on “The Tonight Show” in 1967. He also helped start races like the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and the National Balloon Classic in Indianola.
Piccard was competitive, said his wife, who recalled a close finish in Indianola — when she nearly took first place only to see him land just “a tad closer” to the goal. “He was competitive, but loved the event and all the camaraderie in balloon competitions,” she said. “They were mostly for fun. And he really knew how to have fun.”
Piccard returned to Minneapolis in the 1980s and never lost the joy of ballooning, as he told River Channel last year. “Every flight is spectacular,” he said. “The peace and tranquillity that you can have so many times. Having a big flock of birds flying around you — it’s a little disorienting, maybe, but still an out-of-this-world experience.”
In addition to his wife of 50 years, survivors include three daughters, three stepchildren and seven grandchildren.