Constance Wolf, balloonist
When I first met Buehl, it was on the occasion of a dinner honoring his 88th birthday. It was a very large affair, held at the Bavarian Club, in Philadelphia. As family, I was seated at the head table, next to someone who appeared to be an eccentric old woman who was wearing a veil over her face. Although this was many years ago, veils had been out of fashion for a long time. A few women then might have worn a veil in church, but they were never seen in public. The woman turned out to have been Connie Wolf.
Connie Wolf and her husband, Brigadier General Alfred L. (Abby) Wolf, were the key people behind organizing this party in honor of Buehl. They were good friends and had organized several large celebrations of Buehl before this one.
Wolf and her husband were significant figures in promoting general aviation in the United States. Abby Wolf’s accomplishments are rather better remembered than Connie’s, but Connie’s accomplishments were remarkable. It is difficult to find anything on the internet that talks about Connie Wolf. She deserves to be better known.
Born in Canada in 1905, Connie attended Toronto University and was a theatrical agent until in 1931 she met and married Abby Wolf. Abby taught her to fly airplanes while they were on their honeymoon, and she had her first balloon flight in the summer of 1951. As a balloonist, at one time she held 15 world records. As an airplane pilot, she held her license for over half a century. She was still flying at age 85. She died in 1994, at age 89. Her obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer is a nice source of information.
Although Connie flew hot air balloons, she favored hydrogen-filled gas balloons. (Today, there are very few balloonists in the United States who are certified to use hydrogen as the lifting gas).
Here is a summary of some of her accomplishments, as listed on the website ballooninghistory.com:
1939 - founding member, along with her husband, of the AOPA
1951 - first balloon flight, summer
1952 - founding member of the Balloon Club of America. The club flew from the Valley Forge Airport until it became a golf course, then moved to Wings Field, which was next to the Wolf's home, “Wingover,” in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. (Photo of Wingover - EBC collection. The year and event are unknown, but it was perhaps more common for people to fly to their house to visit the Wolfs than it was for people to drive. We believe that Buehl took this photo following a small gathering at Wingover).
1954 - epic flight 24 Oct, with Donald Piccard and others: the balloon envelope ruptured at an altitude recorded at over 1300 meters. Amazingly, the envelope inverted in the net and formed a parachute. All on board survived, Connie with only minor injuries.
1955 - technical advisor for the film Around the World in 80 Days. Connie's balloon, La Coquette, was used in the film. (Photos of La Coquette found at gasballooning.net).
1956 - first balloon solo flight
1956 - FAA ballooning license issued 26 Nov
1961 - women’s ballooning endurance record, 40 hours 8 minutes, set in November. This flight was said to break 15 world records for women. This was a big year for aviation, since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on April 1961, so taking a number of world records away from Soviet balloonists was welcomed in the United States. The endurance record she set held until 1995.
1962 - crossed the Swiss Alps in a balloon on 20 Aug, the first woman to do so.
It turned out that Wolf always wore a veil. Even when she was at home and mowing the grass in her yard, she had one on. Why did she do it? No one knew for certain, but the best guess was that the veil was reminiscent of the nets that covered her balloons.
There is a lovely, personal tribute to Connie Wolf, written by Jeanne Marie Laskas. In 1996, Laskas published The Balloon Lady and Other People I Know, based in part on her long friendship with Connie. The same author had a very nice article in Life Magazine, (v13, n14, 1990 Nov, p104(6)) titled "My beautiful balloonist: what happens when the hero of your youth grows older - and you do too?".