Sky Rider: Park Van Tassel and the Rise of Ballooning in the West is the first attempt to piece together the life and times of a long-forgotten aviation pioneer, a man who introduced ballooning to Albuquerque at a time when new inventions, mail-order catalogs, and transcontinental railroads were changing the face of the nation, and death-defying aerial exhibitions were just coming of age. That intrepid aeronaut was Park Van Tassel.

When his gas-filled balloon lifted off from a vacant lot in downtown Albuquerque on July 4, 1882, few had ever witnessed human flight. No one in the cheering crowd that day could have realized the importance of Van Tassel’s balloon flight—a first for himself, a first for Albuquerque, a first for New Mexico, and a prelude to establishing aviation firsts in the skies above many foreign countries. Without this book, no one today would appreciate the impact of Van Tassel’s many aeronautical contributions.

Author and aviation historian Dr. Gary Fogel traces Van Tassel’s life journey and shows us how this charismatic barnstormer and his high-flying acrobatic troupe performed throughout the American West and beyond, added parachuting to his ballooning exploits, and, in a most spectacular way, introduced women to aviation.

The traveling showman had a stressful lifestyle, with constant money woes, pesky equipment failures, and relentless pressure to perform on schedule and to outdo burgeoning competition. Some daredevils who indulged in this risky business paid dearly, with their lives. But Van Tassel was a survivor, and after staging perilous yet successful exhibitions in the West, he ventured overseas—Australia, Southeast Asia, India—where the art and science of ballooning and parachuting were virtually unknown. In a real sense, he took ballooning from Albuquerque to the rest of the world. Ironically, now the rest of the world travels to Albuquerque for its annual Balloon Fiesta. The late Sid Cutter, founder of the Balloon Fiesta, had a dream—to create a world-class venue that celebrates the diversity and history of ballooning. Park Van Tassel also had a dream, a boyhood dream to float through the air in a balloon. His dream, like Sid’s, also came true.

Sky Rider reminds us of Albuquerque’s special place in sport ballooning history. The upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Balloon Fiesta not only celebrates the city’s long association with ballooning, but it salutes Van Tassel and the launching of his City of Albuquerque, landing the city on the world stage. It is no wonder Albuquerque is known as the Balloon Capital of the World.

Park Van Tassel has never been celebrated as a great American balloonist. He died in obscurity nearly ninety years ago, his life unheralded, his accomplishments unappreciated. Of the hundreds of thousands of fans who converge on Balloon Fiesta Park each year, only a few are remotely familiar with Albuquerque’s first aeronaut. Fogel has launched Sky Rider to set the record straight and to serve as a tribute to a man with great courage, pioneering spirit, amazing foresight, and an uncanny ability to survive. It is his hope that future researchers will continue the task of unraveling the mysteries surrounding Park Van Tassel and his dubious associates.

As the 1979 winner of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale’s Diplome Montgolfier, the world’s highest ballooning honor, for my literary contributions to sport ballooning, I can relate to the work Fogel has put forth in following Van Tassel’s twisting, convoluted trails across the globe. And as one who has been involved in the Balloon Fiesta since its start in 1972, and as a member of its Hall of Fame, I believe Van Tassel’s legacy will live on in this authoritative biography. In Sky Rider, Park Van Tassel finally takes his rightful place alongside other world-famous aviation pioneers.


Heritage Committee,

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta®

October 2019


I first became interested in ballooning as a teenager. My father had the good fortune to attend a Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque in the 1980s and returned to our home in San Diego with many photographs of what seemed like an endless sky filled with balloons of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Dad and I enjoyed flying radio-controlled model gliders together for many years. While gliders and balloons share a common theme of silent flight, there is something unique and inherently beautiful about balloons. Each flight is a new adventure, requiring smart pilots to think carefully about making use of the atmosphere and the energy it provides. I was naturally drawn to this way of thinking, as smart, continuous decision making is required to extend flight without motors.

At roughly the same time, a high school friend asked if I might be available to help as ground crew for a local ballooning company in San Diego, as it was short staffed at the time. I readily agreed, although I knew almost nothing about balloons and ballooning other than what my dad had shared with me about his experience at the fiesta in Albuquerque. Soon enough, I found myself in a field, helping inflate a very large balloon owned by the Skysurfer Balloon Company. The inflation was louder and hotter than I expected, and there was much to do. Soon we had the balloon and basket in their proper orientation, with paying passengers and pilot on board ready for their flight. Before I could really understand everything that was happening, the craft was off, rising rapidly like a toy balloon that had just escaped a child’s grasp of the string.

My friend and I cleaned up the launch site, hopped in a van, and started the chase. We were in radio communication with the pilot and discussed likely landing zones on the way. Once a landing location was chosen, our task was to get there in advance of the balloon and then help with landing. I wasn’t yet sure what that entailed. But chasing the balloon on the back roads of San Diego was its own new type of fun. With the sun just setting on this twilight balloon ride, we arrived at the landing zone, an empty field of bushes and grass. As the balloon came closer, our first job was to jump on the outside of the basket to serve as added ballast to keep the balloon on the ground. With a slight breeze, this wasn’t going to be easy. We timed our jump on either side of the basket, held on for the landing, and scraped along the ground just a bit before coming to rest, with the passengers cheering a successful conclusion to their flight. Champagne followed, along with our packing away the balloon at dusk. Afterward, the company hired me to help with balloon chasing two or three times a week that summer. I was impressed by the skill of the pilots, their amazing ability to understand wind currents at different altitudes, and steer their way to the select landing zones available. On one landing approach, I hopped on as ballast, but the pilot realized the approach was going to go long and put us directly into a large patch of prickly pear cactus. He told me to hang on as he fired the burner just enough for us to glide over the cactus to a landing on the other side. I was even more relieved than the pilot.

I never did get a chance to go up in the balloon that summer, as it was always full of paying passengers. However, upon returning to San Diego after earning my PhD at the University of California–Los Angeles, my wife, Joanne, and I had the pleasure of taking a flight with the same balloon company. It had been a long time coming, but my familiarity with all aspects of the flight helped. Yet I remained unprepared for the silence and the majesty of the view from the basket. I was also unprepared for the noise and heat produced by the burner, a reminder that energy was required to extend the journey. But we landed safely and finally had the chance to enjoy sharing in the champagne.

From this modern vantage point, it can be difficult to process what ballooning must have been like in the past. We have become accustomed to the comforts of air travel, and we accept it as just another part of daily life. In just a short 250 years or so, we’ve managed to transform what was once considered an “impossible” art of flight into a reality. Commercial airliners whisk us around the world at nearly the speed of sound while we enjoy movies and drinks. Unpiloted aircraft can be flown by an operator half a world away or even controlled by a computer instead of a human. To people two centuries ago, our present-day reality would have absolutely seemed a futuristic pipe-dream.

The earliest hot air balloon flight occurred in Annonay, France, on June 4, 1783, manned by Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier. Later that same year, on December 1, Jacques Charles, Anne-Jean Robert, and Nicolas-Louis Robert made the first gas balloon flight in a hydrogen balloon in Paris. Ballooning came to the United States soon thereafter in the form of unpiloted ascensions and tethered flights. Through the efforts of Benjamin Franklin and others to help popularize ballooning, European expert Jean-Pierre Blanchard came to Philadelphia in December 1792, selling tickets for his balloon ascension for $5 each (roughly $130 in today’s dollars). Despite the cost, an enormous crowd, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe, gathered on January 10, 1793, to watch Blanchard’s ascension. It was not only a spectacle of curiosity but offered interesting possibilities for the government. The crowd’s astonishment must have been considerably greater than when I witnessed my first balloon launch, as I was already accepting of the possibility of both lighter-than-air flight and heavier-than-air flight at the time. The founders would have had no preconceived notion of what they would witness. Humans flying to the heavens? Who would have believed it possible! Blanchard’s flight, the first untethered, piloted flight in US history, was a source of considerable inspiration, witnessed by thousands. Unfortunately for Blanchard, the flight also turned out to be something of a financial boondoggle, as he was unable to recoup his expenses.

At this dawn of piloted ballooning, a romantic “balloonomania” began to spread. Those who dared to sever their bond with Earth were celebrated as heroes after each flight. Children played with small model balloons made of paper. Intellectuals around the world became interested in the use of balloons for science, such as William Herschel’s concept of taking telescopes high into the atmosphere with balloons for improved astronomical viewing. In the nineteenth century, poets and writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Henry Mayhew, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Wordsworth1 helped popularize ballooning, culminating with French novelist Jules Verne’s A Voyage in a Balloon (1851) and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), early science fiction that further brought the excitement and possibilities of ballooning to the masses. Unlike the famous 1956 film adaptation of Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, the original 1872 novel did not in fact include ballooning among its many modes of transportation.

Between the 1840s and the 1860s, Americans became increasingly interested in ballooning. As noted in The Eagle Aloft, Tom D. Crouch’s comprehensive and authoritative history of ballooning in America, “a legion of itinerant aeronauts, veterans and newcomers alike, crisscrossed the nation during these years, flying in cities from Maine to California. Universally honored as ‘Professor This’ or ‘Madame That,’ their exploits were featured on the front pages of great newspapers and the new illustrated magazines such as Harper’s and Leslie’s. They were a breed apart, the first generation of footloose, barnstorming aerial showmen.”2 This generation also included some brave women who wished to prove themselves as aviators. Pioneer balloonist John Wise and his associates were central in this new age of balloon exhibition.

Advances in ballooning coincided with a time of expansion in the United States, as many migrated from East to West by covered wagon or boat to make their pile during the gold rush. The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, providing Americans with a more efficient means of travel. This monumental undertaking cost between $16,000 and $48,000 per mile of track, depending on the topography (roughly $500,000 and $1,400,000 per mile in today’s dollars), over a total length of 1,868 miles. Before the transcontinental railroad, a trip from the East Coast to the West Coast took more than four months. By 1876 the Transcontinental Express traveled from New York City to San Francisco in just three and a half days. The railroad literally opened up the West during the late nineteenth century, including the diverse routes of the Union Pacific Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Today we fly over this same route in a mere five hours through our highways in the sky.

The first balloon flight west of the Rockies was arranged in Oakland, California, on August 28, 1853, by a certain Mr. Kelly.3 This event didn’t go as planned, as the balloon had insufficient buoyancy to carry Kelly aloft. A sixteen-year-old boy named Joseph Gates took his place and soared aloft without much in the way of training. Two hours later, the balloon came back to Earth and Gates hopped out 5 miles west of Benicia. Now relieved of its weight, the balloon went skyward again, landing some distance beyond. Somewhat miraculously, Gates suffered a sprained ankle during the landing and also injured his hand while trying to cut a hole in the fabric at altitude to release some of the gas. He returned to San Francisco the following day. History fails to record if he ever flew again.

During the Civil War, both the Union and Confederate armies made use of balloons for reconnaissance. The efforts of Thaddeus S. C. Lowe are well documented in service of Union forces and for the War Department, leading to the formation of Lowe’s Balloon Corps, which included multiple balloons, trained aeronauts, and a portable hydrogen generating system. His efforts with balloons continued after the war and included use of a gymnast performing stunts on a bar beneath the basket. He even staged the first aerial wedding in 1865, with the famous abolitionist clergyman Henry Ward Beecher officiating. As it turned out, the Reverend Beecher could not be persuaded to get into the basket. The couple was married instead at the Fifth Avenue Hotel before heading to Central Park for the balloon flight with Lowe.

During the mid-1880s, Americans also became interested in traveling exhibitions such as those offered by Phineas Taylor (P. T.) Barnum. These troupes often combined “science” with theater through unusual exhibitions of magic, animals, and an unnerving variety of human oddities. P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth began in 1871, touring the world in 1888. William F. Cody brought his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show to towns of the Old West starting in 1882. The show included shooting displays, rodeo events, and theatrical reenactments. A series of similar shows included Texas Jack’s Wild West, Pawnee Bill’s Wild West, and the 101 Ranch Wild West Show. The entertainers would travel from town to town, largely by rail, eager to provide performances that would offer a profit beyond the expense of transportation.

Prior to the Civil War, crowds in large cities were pleased simply to see experts go aloft in their balloons. After the Civil War and into the 1880s, aeronauts became more focused on exhibition and less on ballooning skill. Many learned through a process of trial and error, as experts in ballooning were uncommon. Errors on the ground led to ridicule and lost income. Errors in the sky proved far more dangerous and, for some, even fatal. The lack of mentors was most acute in the West. Those lucky enough to find one were taught how to make or buy a balloon and the basics of its operation. They were left to their own devices to try it. Just as the founders were amazed to watch balloons take to the sky, those who were brave enough to be the first in town to pilot a balloon were amazed just to fly and survive. Daredevils with the courage not only to fly but also to work a trapeze below the balloon, or even jump with a parachute, realized the opportunity to capitalize on the amazed audiences.

It is against this backdrop that we find a handful of western pioneers eager not only to enjoy the romance of leaving the bonds of an Earth-bound existence with a balloon but also to use balloons for entrepreneurship and to make their living as aeronauts. Unlike the pioneering spirits who came to the West to find gold buried in the Earth, these brave aviators would attain their wealth in the sky. Many westerners had only read about balloons in a newspaper or seen a rare photo. The opportunity to see a traveling balloon exhibition in person would have been the nineteenth-century equivalent of Richard Branson launching suborbital spacecraft from Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to carry space tourists on the ride of their lives. Those who were brave enough competed to see who could fly higher or farther or be first to launch from a specific town. These newfangled balloon exhibitionists traveled by rail from place to place to enthrall paying audiences. One of the most prominent of these aeronautical pioneers was Park Van Tassel.

I was introduced to the story of early balloonist Park Van Tassel by Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta pioneer Dick Brown and Rick Van Tassel, an indirect relative of Park. Together they had spent time researching his history. While certain facts were clear, other parts to this story were quite confused. Park Van Tassel’s lifetime of travels and balloon launches across wide geographic distances, from the American West to the rest of the world, left a scattered trail. Arranging these pieces into a cohesive story was going to require considerable effort. Yet the more I researched the story, the more fascinating it became. Van Tassel not only introduced New Mexico to flight, but he also helped introduce flight to millions around the world and helped introduce women to ballooning and parachuting during the tumultuous women’s rights movements of the late nineteenth century. Reporters in one city after the next hailed him as a hero, but few understood his past, fewer still knew where he would head next, and Van Tassel clearly sometimes embellished the truth. His often frenetic pace from town to town, state to state, country to country, and continent to continent left little in the way of a coherent history. As a result, his journeys have been largely forgotten. This biography aims to piece together these many disconnected anecdotes into one complete account of this early aerial showman of the West, Park Van Tassel.

Wherever primary source information has been possible to obtain, I have made use of it. But in many cases I have had to rely on multiple secondary sources to tease out Van Tassel’s life story. I have researched as many contemporary versions of each event as possible and provide them all here in the references for future historians. Park Van Tassel’s amazing story was the result of fortitude and good timing: the opening of the American West by rail, the popularization and accessibility of ballooning, a willing and interested public eager for entertainment, with newspapers helping to market events in advance of the next stop on the tour. Balloons have maintained their magic, much as they did for me back in high school. I hope this book will help you understand why.


I would like to thank various individuals for their assistance in the development of this book. First and foremost, Rick Van Tassel and Dick Brown are to be thanked for the initial suggestion to research this story, for supplying many critical references, and for helping interpret material along the way. This book would not have been possible without their help. In Albuquerque, I would like to thank Diane Schaller (Historic Albuquerque, Inc.) for assistance with reference materials. In New Orleans, Heather M. Szafran (reference assistant, the Historic New Orleans Collection) helped provide material regarding Van Tassel’s association with the 1884 World’s Fair. In Australia, special thanks go to Debra Close (learning and information officer, CityLibraries Townsville), Chris Brimble (learning and information officer, CityLibraries Townsville), and Ella Morrison (Reader Services, National Library of Australia). I was very fortunate to interact with each of them in search of material regarding Van Tassel’s exhibitions in Australia. A very special thank-you goes to Fiona Spooner (ephemera officer, National Library of Australia), who provided excellent assistance from afar regarding specific material in the National Library of Australia collection. It was a pleasure to work with each of them as well as Cindy Abel Morris (pictorial archivist, Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico Libraries) and Katrina Pescador and Alan Renga with the San Diego Air and Space Museum. With regard to Van Tassel’s time in China and Japan, thanks go to Howard and Norma Lee, Tomoko Bialock (Japanese studies librarian, University of California–Los Angeles), Sophie Arab, and especially Masako Ogawa and her students at Macquarie University for their assistance in finding articles and translating them into English. Thanks also to Erica Peters for her rapid research into early balloon exhibitions in Indochina and to Eliza Binte Elahi and Shameem Aminur Rahmanin in Dhaka for their interest in Van Tassel’s time in Bangladesh, as well as Roland Sommer and Rolf Stunkel for efforts to research portions of the story in Germany.

Park Van Tassel’s story is not one of just New Mexico or the American West. It is truly international. To gather primary and secondary source material, I used many resources, including the Albuquerque Historical Society,, the British Library, the British Library Business and Intellectual Property Reference Service, the fabulous California Digital Newspaper Collection of the Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research at the University of California–Riverside, the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico, Historic Albuquerque, Inc., the Historic New Orleans Collection, the Library of Congress, the Los Angeles Public Library, the Museum of Flight, the National Archives of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the National Endowment for the Humanities,, the Richard C. Rudolph East Asian Library at the University of California–Los Angeles, the San Diego Air and Space Museum, the San Diego State University Library, the Save Our Heritage Organisation, the Smithsonian Institution, the Stanford University Library, the State Library of Victoria, and the University of Melbourne.

Special thanks go to Stephen Hull, Michael Millman, and others at the University of New Mexico Press for understanding the importance of this story not only for New Mexico but for the history of aviation in the United States and other nations. Thanks also go to Peg Goldstein for her valued copyediting of the manuscript. I would also like to thank Marilee Schmit Nason and Tom D. Crouch, who served as expert reviewers for the book’s first draft and whose suggestions have helped immeasurably. Added thanks go to Joanne and Sabrina Fogel for putting up with my obsessions; to Eva Fogel, John McNeil, Charles Norris, David Hall, and Craig Harwood for helping review portions of the manuscript; and to Amie Hayes and Bruce Coons of the Save Our Heritage Organisation in San Diego for their many efforts to promote local aviation history. Lastly, very special thanks go to Ana Loyola for her assistance in helping me find Park Van Tassel’s grave in Oakland, California, a process that required considerable research and effort.



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