The Tragic Catalina Balloon Race

What was intended to be the first annual Catalina Island to the mainland hot air balloon race was originally attempted on Saturday, 11 January 1964, but the participants called it off shortly before departure time because of poor weather conditions, rescheduling it for a week later. The reporters and others involved were flown back to Orange County Airport from Avalon Harbor in the same group of Graumann Goose seaplanes chartered from Catalina Airlines that had ferried them to the island that morning.

A week later, as scheduled, several seaplanes picked up the reporters and others, this time at Long Beach Airport, for the 26 mile flight across the Catalina channel. The weather was again poor and the forecast discouraging with all involved in agreement that the balloon race would be cancelled if the weather conditions prevented this second effort.

Glenn Edwards of KEZY Radio & His Staff

The Press Is Welcomed Aboard By Catalina Air Lines Chief Pilot

Jack Whittaker Of ABC Wide World Of Sports & Other Reporters

The rough ocean surface condtions were again obvious to the passengers aboard the low flying seaplanes during the 20 minute flight to the island and the situation was even less promising for the balloon race when dismal weather forecasts were distributed upon their arrival. As they had been the previous week, everyone was again taken by chartered Avalon Taxi vans to the Chicago Cubs winter baseball practice field a short distance inland and the participants once more began preparing their balloons while awaiting weather updates.

Crews Begin Setting Up The Balloons

Cliff Robertson

Participants & Chase Boats

When the balloons were ready, the weather was still as bad or worse than it had been the week before and the forecasts were not encouraging. The participants gathered together to discuss the situation and make the necessary go or no go decision.

Balloonists Gather To Decide

The general consensus of the participants was that it was a close call but probably best not to procede at which time the sole woman balloonist, Barbara Keith, was overheard firmly stating to the effect that she was going to take off whether or not any of the others did. The rest quickly then agreed to also launch their balloons.

Cliff Robertson & Frank Tallman In Their 1890"s Ballooning Attire

From that point on, events got hectic with the chase boat crews and those reporters hoping to hitch a ride with one of the boats rushing off for the Avalon fishing pier where the boats were moored close by. Many of the others headed in the same general direction for hopefully good vantage points on the pier or along the shore as the balloons cleared the ridge separating the launch site from the town and the channel waters, the top of which was disappearing periodically in the low overcast. The rest stayed at the ball field to either assist with the launch or watch the balloons ascend.

The last chase boat to leave the pier was the sportfisher, Melody Joe, on which a few of the reporters still ariving from the launch field managed to hitch a ride.

View From The Melody Joe As It Left The Avalon Pier

Don Piccard's balloon disappeared in the overcast as it skimmed over the ridge, already in descent to try to keep in visual contact with the chase boats on the other side. His balloon went down on the ocean side of the ridge, ending his participation.

Other balloonists changed altitudes over the water shortly after takeoff, both to try to keep visual contact with the chase boats and to try to find acceptable winds but it was a chaotic sight with balloons going off in various directions, disappearing into the low overcast and losing altitude to stay in sight, extremely tricky in the cold weather. Some didn't make it very far before winding up in the ocean. The Cliff Robertson-Frank Tallman entry went into the ocean and capsized but they managed to get back aloft and spent the rest of their effort soaked and terribly cold.

Balloon Descending A Few Miles From Avalon Harbor

A banquet was scheduled that night at a restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway in Corona Del Mar between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach and the balloonists straggled in throughout the evening, all but Ed Yost having gone into the ocean sooner or later. Yost landed his ballon in the surf at the mainland but only to avoid spectators crowding his intended landing spot on the beach.

Eventually, all the balloonists arrived at the restaurant - except Barbara Keith - and as the hours passed the anxiety about her whereabouts and safety grew. Near midnight arrangements were completed for an air and sea search to begin at dawn including the chase boats, the Civil Air Patrol and Tallman's twin engine Beechcraft. When they finally found Barbara Keith, it was too late. Her balloon had gone into the ocean at an unknown time and she reportedly died of pneumonia during the night.

Map Of The Balloon Race Events

There were discussions among the balloonist and race organizers for some time thereafter about an annual "Barbara Keith Memorial Balloon Race" but that was a long time ago and it doesn't seem likely there will ever be another Catalina Island to the mainland balloon race.

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