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Doing research for another story, I found a news clipping in an archived 1990 Philadelphia Inquirer article with a headline that made me look twice:
“Balloonist robbed after crash-landing in North Phila.”
What’s that? A hot air balloon met its demise on the corner of 7th and Oxford streets? Casually enough that its occupants were robbed? Yes.
Turns out the operators, a pair named Drew Woznowski and Judy Hardwick of Madison, Wisc., were here for the city’s then-annual Great Philadelphia Balloon Race.
It was created to commemorate the first American hot air balloon trip in 1793. When Jean-Pierre Blanchard traveled from the banks of Philadelphia across the river to New Jersey, it marked the young nation’s first planned air voyage of any kind. (In 2018, a world-famous balloonist recreated the famed adventure to commemorate its 225th anniversary.)
Philly’s annual version was launched in 1976 as the Bicentennial Balloon Race, and for several years took off each year on or around the Fourth of July.
The celebration of the United States’ 200 birthday kicked off on June 27, 1976. The city commemorated the occasion with the OG version of Welcome America. Then called Freedom Week, it was a nine-day celebration centered around Independence Day.
There were fireworks! Parades! Festivals! There was even a “Mummers in the Summer” parade which sounds like it would have made participants pretty hot inside their costumes.
The Bicentennial Balloon Race was one of the first events in the lineup.
Organized by the International Professional Balloon Pilots Racing Association, the race was produced by association founder by Robert L. Waligunda, who continued that role through 1991.
That first spectacle featured 14 rainbow-colored hot air balloons that stretched seven stories high. Pioneering balloonists from around the country descended on Fairmount Park’s Belmont Plateau, and in front of thousands of spectators, set out to reenact most of Blanchard’s ascension.
Blanchard’s ride began at the corner of 6th and Walnut streets in January 1793.
At that time, the site was a prison yard. When the races began nearly 200 years later, the Center City street corner was occupied by the Penn Mutual building. So the 1976 contest started on the Plateau instead, and from there retraced the 16-mile path the pioneer took from Philly to Deptford, N.J.
To win the race, balloonists had to arrive as close as possible to the landing spot of “hare,” or lead balloon.
But ballooning is a unique sport, highly subject to wind conditions. So discovered Wisconsinites Hardwick and Woznowski on that fateful morning in 1990. The duo became “subject to the whims of nature,” Inquirer writer Terrence Samuels wrote, and landed in an overgrown North Philly lot.
More than 100 people gathered to check out the commotion as the balloon was coming down, according to a 17-year-old spectator Samuels spoke with.
Another Inquirer writer, columnist Clark DeLeon, seems to have been loosely assigned the hot air balloon beat. He rode in and wrote about several of the events over the years, and he offered his thoughts on the escapade.
“I have found those people on the ground when we landed, wherever we landed, to be delighted by the arrival and eager to help secure the balloon,” DeLeon wrote. “I’m willing to bet the majority of the people in that crowd at Seventh and Oxford were the same way.”
But the helpful onlookers and hundreds of eyes weren’t enough to deter two men from robbing Hardwick and Woznowski of $1,000 worth of equipment, including a 35mm camera, a two-way radio and a pair of binoculars. Quite the haul.
Things would likely be different now, with GPS and cell phone video. But according to newspaper archives, the last official event seems to have taken place in 1993, and the Great Philadelphia Balloon Race is no more.