Suspended under a twilight canopy: Constance Cann Wolf and the wonderful world of ballooning

Constance Cann Wolf caught on film as she herself caught on film a scene that caught her eye, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The gas balloon belonged to the Balloon Club of America. Anon., “Balloon over Paris.” Flying, May 1959, cover.

Greetings, my reading friend. I have a confession to make. Before choosing this particular topic for this particular issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee that you are currently perusing, yours truly looked at more than 25 other possibilities, dated between 1929 and 1969, published in close to 20 magazines and newspapers, dailies, weeklies and monthlies, that came from no less than 7 countries, and… What’s this? You wish to paraphrase Angelina Jolie Pitt, born Angelina Jolie Voigt, in the somewhat disappointing 2010 movie The Tourist? Twenty five possibilities dated between 1929 and 1969, from close to 20 magazines and newspapers from 7 countries. And that’s the one you choose, say ye? You don’t like it, say I?

One could argue that our story began in July 1905, in Hamilton, Ontario, with the birth of Constance “Connie” Cann. This bright young woman studied at the University of Toronto before moving to New York, New York, where she became a theatrical agent. Would you believe that Cann’s family may originally have come from Nova Scotia, from Cape Breton Island to be more precise? And yes, my reading friend, the Aerodrome No. 4 Silver Dart of the Aerial Experiment Association which made the first controlled and sustained flight of a powered airplane in Canada, in February 1909, took off from the frozen surface of a lake on Cape Breton Island – a factoid mentioned in an October 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Our story hit high gear in 1951 when this fine and fearless lady, by then Constance Cann Wolf, now retired and spouse of aviation lawyer Alfred Loeb “Abby” Wolf, was in Europe. Why Europe? Well, at the time, her spouse was serving in Western Europe, in West Germany from the looks of it, on an Air Force Reserve assignment. The couple had its private airplane shipped there.

Before we move on toward the climax of our story, however, I would like to digress for 1 minute or 3. Did you know that the Wolfs were the first civilian aviators to land at Gander, Newfoundland, in September 1938? Hello EG! The couple actually alighted on Gander Lake, because the runways of Newfoundland Airport, a new international facility being developed by the British Air Ministry known today as Gander International Airport, were still under construction. The adventurous Wolfs seemingly made trip for the fun of it.

You may also be interested to hear (read?), or not, that Wolf, the husband that is, was one of the handful of individuals who founded the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), in 1939, to ensure that private flying / general aviation would have a seat at the table when various matters related to aviation were discussed. This powerful association was still going strong in 2019.

The Canadian counterpart of AOPA, the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), was formed in 1952 by 2 Ottawa, Ontario, pilots, John M. Bogie and Margaret Carson. It too was still going strong in 2019. Carson was / is the first and, possibly, the only non American winner, in 1951, of the All Women’s International Air Race, an annual competition commonly known as the Angel Derby. Incidentally, one of the founding members of COPA was none other than Keith S. “Hoppy” Hopkinson, a pioneer of the post Second World War homebuilding movement in Canada. This fine gentleman was mentioned in a September 2017 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Homebuilding itself was mentioned on several occasions in that same blog / bulletin / thingee, but I digress. Sorry. Sorry.

While flying around Western Europe, Wolf, a private pilot since 1931, happened to land in Switzerland. She soon met a well known Swiss balloon pilot, engineer Fred Forrer, a member of Ballongruppe Zürich who was involved with this organisation between 1947 and 1973. In less time than it took to say supercarlifragilisticexpialidocious, Wolf fell in love with ballooning. We’re still talking (typing?) about Mrs. Wolf, of course. If you have no objection, I shall refrain from typing the “Mrs.” from now on. Oddly enough, Mr. Wolf positively hated ballooning. He went up once, with his spouse, a proud balloonatic, and that was it.

After the couple’s return to the United States, Wolf began to ponder what she could do to help the cause of ballooning in her adopted country. With a few other enthusiasts, she founded the Balloon Club of America, in 1952. Within a few months, or years, said club counted 4 licensed balloon pilots among its small membership, besides Wolf:

- Anthony Mead “Tony” Fairbanks, an engineer at Piasecki Helicopter Corporation / Vertol Aircraft Corporation,

- Peter Pellegrino, a Civil Aeronautics Administration airport tower chief,

- Donald Louis “Don” Piccard, a Second World War balloon and airship rigger who seemingly became a salesman, and

- Francis Shields, a free lance builder.

Wolf herself got her ballooning pilot licence in November 1956. Before that, she had to fly with a certified pilot.

And yes, Piasecki Helicopter and Vertol Aircraft were mentioned in October and November 2017 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. And yes again, Piccard was mentioned in a March 2019 issue of that same blog / bulletin / thingee. And no, Pellegrino was not the spouse of Ann Dearing Holtgren Pellegreno, the lady who, in 1967, flew around the world to commemorate the unsuccessful attempt launched, in 1937, by famous American aviatrix Amelia Mary Earhart and her navigator, Frederick Joseph “Fred” Noonan. Incidentally, the Lockheed Model 10 Electra flown by Pellegreno and her 3 men crew now belongs to the world famous Canada Aviation and Space Museum of Ottawa.

Incidentally, the twin brother of Piccard’s father was also associated with Ballongruppe Zürich. Auguste Antoine Piccard was a member between 1920 and 1946. This physicist / oceanaut / aeronaut was mentioned in a July 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. And yes, a well-known Belgian cartoonist, Hergé, born Georges Prosper Remi, was so fascinated by Piccard that he was inspired to create one of the most popular characters in the universe that surrounded his world-famous hero, Tintin. Cuthbert Calculus was mentioned in July and September 2018 issues of that same blog / bulletin / thingee.

Eager to slip the surly bonds of earth, the members of the Balloon Club of America acquired 9 United States Navy gas balloons dating from the First World War or, perhaps more likely, the Second World War. Each of these beaten up, mildewed and patched up aerostats cost the princely sum of $ 10. Before long, the balloons could be seen drifting slowly over the countryside, in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The pilots may very well have waved as flabbergasted motorists going to work in the early morning or returning home in the late afternoon stared at these aerial giants effortlessly floating by. Some private pilots and, seemingly, the odd airline pilot were fascinated to such an extent that they circled back to have another look, from a safe distance of course. Any balloon landing in a field near a highway, or in a tree, would soon be surrounded by fascinated people of all ages willing to offer assistance. Some of these individuals actually proved useful.

Although usually very safe, ballooning was / is not without some risks. In October 1954, the envelope of the balloon Wolf and Piccard were flying in suffered an accident in mid air. As luck would have it, as the balloon fell to earth, more than 1 300 metres (almost 4 300 feet) below, its envelope formed a parachute of sort inside the netting. Wolf, Piccard and their passengers all survived the crash. She received only minor bruises. Everyone else seemingly suffered one or more fractures. A person broke a foot, another one a toe, for example.

Would you believe that the aeronauts of the Balloon Club of America initially filled the enveloped of their aerostats with cooking gas, in other words natural gas / methane, rather than a more suitable but more difficult to find gas like hydrogen or helium? Mind you, it is possible the aeronauts used coal gas, a lighter than air gas mixture produced from coal and used for lighting mentioned in November 2018 and March 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Wolf personally preferred to use hydrogen, the lightest of all gases and a highly flammable one, unlike helium. Hydrogen was rather more expensive than commercially available gases. Filling a balloon with one of these cost approximately $ 180 in 1959, compared to $ 500 for a hydrogen fill.

Wolf flew on hot air balloons on a few occasions, from the 1960s onward, but found them a tad too hot and noisy for her taste. All right, all right, the truth was that Wolf pretty much abhorred hot air ballooning.

Constance Cann Wolf besides one of the gas balloons she loved so much. Russell Sparr, “Elle ‘joue’ au ballon à l’ère des fusées.” Le Soleil – Perspectives, 14 November 1959, 6.

Constance Cann Wolf besides one of the gas balloons she loved so much. Russell Sparr, “Elle ‘joue’ au ballon à l’ère des fusées.” Le Soleil – Perspectives, 14 November 1959, 6.

In 1957, a few members of the Balloon Club of America crossed the Atlantic, in an airliner of course, to take part in an international balloon race for the Trophée du ballon libre, held in the Netherlands in June of that year. Their old balloon was no match for the modern aerostats flown by the other 7 or 8 teams, all from Europe from the looks of it. Even so, Fairbanks, Shields and Wolf managed to come in 5th. The Belgian team won, by the way, but I digress, one of my many faults. Yes, yes, I do, digress and have many faults that is, but let’s not dwell.

You do remember that Wolf was a respected theatrical agent, before her 1931 marriage that is, don’t you, my somewhat absent minded reading friend? Sigh… Never mind. Anyway, one of her many theatrical friends was none other than Michael “Mike” Todd. When this renowned American theatre and movie producer set out to produce Around the World in Eighty Days, a movie based on a novel written by Jules Gabriel Verne, a gentleman mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since June 2018, he turned to Wolf in order to borrow a balloon for use in a scene. She readily agreed to help, as did the membership of the Balloon Club of America. As it turned out, Pellegrino, Shields and Wolf acted as technical advisers during the filming. And yes, Around the World in Eighty Days was mentioned in a November 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

One of the Balloon Club of America’s aerostats became La Coquette, the brightly decorated balloon in which Phileas Fogg, played by James David Graham Niven, left Paris to continue his journey around the globe after learning that a train tunnel was blocked. Interestingly enough, this scene, arguably one of the most famous of the film, was not in the novel written by the aforementioned Verne. If truth be told, Niven was probably nowhere near the balloon when it lifted off. You see, this devil may care Second World War combat veteran was somewhat afraid of heights. Indeed, a stand-in took the place of Niven for many of the shots showing the balloon in flight, which were filmed on a studio set using a 50 metre (165 feet) crane.

Did I mention that my maternal grandfather was named Philias Chabot? Small world, isn’t it? But I digress. Sorry. Incidentally, a brother of his great great great grandfather was apparently the ancestor of a gentleman by the name of Antoine Chabot, better known as Anthony Chabot, a millionaire (?) businessman, entrepreneur and philanthropist famous, or infamous, your choice, as one of the brains behind a technology known as hydraulic mining. The wooden device used by miners used the weight of a tall column of water to shoot a powerful stream of water at a gravel bank thought to contain gold. This revolutionary approach to mining often caused severe damage downstream, however, damaging or destroying homes and farmland. Chabot later supervised the construction of public water systems in California, and other states. This work was so well known that it earned him the nickname “Water King.” Chabot died in January 1888, at age 74.

In 1883, Chabot donated a telescope and the money needed to build an observatory in Oakland, California. Said observatory was the ancestor of today’s Chabot Space & Science Center. Indeed, Chabot’s name could / can be found in several other locations in the San Francisco Bay area: 2 community colleges, 2 elementary schools, 2 humanmade lakes, 2 streets, a road, a regional park, a movie theatre, a gun club, etc. but I digress, again.

Did you know that Niven was on the cast of 2 British aviation movies filmed during the Second World War, in 1942 and 1944, more specifically The First of the Few and The Way Ahead? The former was the first fiction film to dwell upon the Battle of Britain of 1940, one of the crucial campaigns of the Second World War, if not of the 20th century. Indeed, The First of the Few was a biopic of Reginald Joseph Mitchell, the designer of the exceptionally successful Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane, who had died in June 1937. And now back to our story, and La Coquette.

Eager to promote the London and Paris premieres of Around the World in Eighty Days, Todd asked Wolf and her friends if they would be willing to fly La Coquette over these 2 cities, after the aforementioned international balloon race of course. Again, Wolf and her teammates readily agreed to help.

Convincing the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation to give its blessings to the London flight proved surprisingly difficult, however. Said flight, with Wolf, Shields and Fairbanks on board, in late June from the looks of it, began at the Battersea Pleasure Gardens. The size of the crowd is unclear but both policemen and firemen were on hand. An official request that the registration of the balloon be visible to onlookers on takeoff greatly amused Todd. The latter indicated to Wolf and the other balloonists that they were not insured against striking Buckingham Palace, the London residence of the royal family. Their reaction to that piece of news went unrecorded. Seconds after liftoff, La Coquette gently sank into nearby treetops. Its crew quickly dropped some sand ballast, apparently on the head of members of the attending crowd. As the balloon floated away, the radar reflector mounted on the nacelle (?) at the request of the authorities could be seen, stuck in a tree. The rest of the flight was quite uneventful. It lasted about 2 hours.

A quick question if I may. Is it me or is the merging of tourism and civil aviation within a single ministry just a tad odd? Never mind.

Wolf, who did not intend to take part in the Paris flight, returned to the United States soon after. For some reason or other, she changed her mind. Wolf flew to Paris and was rushed to an open space in front of the Hôtel national des Invalides, which is not really a hotel by the way, in the centre of the French capital, from where La Coquette was to lift off. Journalists from several Paris dailies, and from at least one radio network, were there to conduct interviews. A nephew of the aforementioned Verne was on hand to offer his best wishes to Wolf and her fellow pilot, the aforementioned Shields. Champagne flowed as the final preparations were completed.

Wolf, Shields and La Coquette lifted off amid the cheers of a large crowd of well wishers. As the balloon drifted over Paris, countless people looked up and waived, or cheered, or both. Wolf and Shields waived back. For some time, it looked as if they would deviate from their flight plan – a serious infraction but one over which Wolf and Shields had no control. The wind, mischievous as it could / can be, gently pushed La Coquette toward Le Bourget airport. It changed direction before the balloon got too close. Wolf and Shields landed in a field some distance from the airport. The flight had lasted 3 hours. Wolf was home before the end of the following day.

As time went by, Wolf made some rather significant and not so significant flights. In early July 1959, for example, she and Fairbanks commemorated the flight made in January 1793 by French aeronaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard – the second one made in the Americas. And here lies a tale. All right, a short tale. A very short one.

Blanchard announced his intentions in a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, newspaper. Tickets went on sale for 2 and 5 dollars, which was not cheap at all. On the appointed day, a fair-sized throng gathered at the chosen site, the yard of the city prison. Among the few privileged spectators who could afford the price of a ticket were George Washington and 4 future presidents of the United States: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Blanchard, sharply dressed as usual, wore a beautiful blue suit that nicely matched the blue of the balloon’s gondola. His hydrogen balloon travelled about 25 kilometres (about 15 miles) in 45 minutes.

After landing in New Jersey, Blanchard showed a laissez-passer signed by Washington to a farmer he happened to encounter. Said farmer was unfortunately illiterate and became suspicious. Not knowing what to do, Blanchard, who spoke no English, uncorked a bottle of wine. The farmer smiled. Successful as it had been, this flight did not begin to pay for itself. Blanchard was only too familiar with this problem. Pursued by bad luck and constantly short of funds, he eventually left the United States in 1797.

In November 1961, Wolf remained in the air 40 hours and 8 minutes, an epic and frigid 2 400 kilometre (1 500 mile) flight that broke 15 ballooning world records for women. This endurance flight remained undefeated until 1995. In August 1962, Wolf became the first woman to cross the Alps in a balloon, from Switzerland to Italy. As part of the 1982 celebrations surrounding the tercentennial of Philadelphia, she piloted a hot air, yes, hot air, balloon. As part of the 1987 celebrations surrounding the bicentennial of the American constitution, she flew a hot air balloon shaped like the famous Liberty Bell over Philadelphia.

Over the years, Wolf received several awards that recognised her remarkable accomplishments.

It is worth noting that, in October 1960, as presidential candidate Richard Milhouse “Tricky Dick” Nixon campaigned in Pennsylvania, Wolf and Fairbanks flew a balloon that carried a banner carrying both his name and that of his running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, Junior. Nixon spoke briefly as he stood on the edge of the nacelle. As we both know, Nixon lost to John Fitzgerald “Jack / JFK” Kennedy.

At some point in 1961, the Balloon Club of America and another balloon club formed the Balloon Federation of America, which was still going strong in 2019.

When at home, a farm homestead aptly named Wingover, near a small airfield called Wings Field, Wolf and her spouse often threw parties, which soon became famous. All guests had to fly in. At times, more than 150 light / private airplanes would crowd the airfield. The list of partygoers included names like those of Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor; Ginger Rogers, born Virginia Katherine McMath; Howard Robard Hughes, Junior; Joan Fontaine, born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland; and Marie Magdelene “Marlene” Dietrich. And yes, Hughes was mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2017. Profuse apologies for the many thingees.

An active balloon and airplane pilot until the late 1980s, Wolf died in April 1994, 5 or so years after her spouse. She was 88 years old.

Her memory and that of her spouse are commemorated in the Alfred L. and Constance C. Wolf Aviation Fund, set up in 1986 to support scientific research and educational activities in matters relating to the use of aircraft as a means of transportation.

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Rénald Fortier