Minnesota family flies high after honor for hot air balloon pioneer

It’s been days since Donna Wiederkehr returned from the biggest balloon festival in the world, and in some ways she feels like she’s still floating in the air.

“It was full of good memories. It was quite emotional. So full of joy to think of all that he has achieved,” Wiederkehr said.

Wiederkehr’s father, Matt, fell in love with ballooning after watching the world’s first hot air balloon race at the St. Paul’s Winter Carnival in 1962.

He became one of the nation’s top 10 balloonists and set 22 world records, before becoming one of the top 13 pilots for the inaugural Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in 1972.

“He used to say, ‘we float in harmony with the winds and with mother earth and nature.’ He loved that part. At the same time, he loved pushing those limits, setting world records and seeing what’s possible in this sport,” Wiederkehr said.

Matt Wiederkehr died in 2019 at the age of 90, but for the 50th anniversary of that first party, organizers honored the original pilots by recreating the original race, including one of Wiederkerh’s own hot air balloons, piloted by its lead pilot Larry Nickolay and Wiederkehr’s daughter. Denise, who flew with him at the first fiesta.

Nickolay and Wiederkehr’s daughter Donna also piloted her balloon in the Great Ascension, joining 650 other hot air balloons in the skies of New Mexico, while nearly 2 dozen family members from across the country watched the spectacle aerial from the ground below.

“Basically, I couldn’t have ballooned without Matt and the Wiederkehrs,” Nickolay said.

Wiederkehr says she felt like her father was with them as they floated and drifted in the wind.

She thinks getting others to join the sport he loved is the best way to keep his memory alive.

“It was so special and it makes new memories, even though Dad is gone, to be able to make new memories with Mom and see the impact he had on the sport,” Wiederkehr said.