DR. WILLIAM (BILL) C. GRABB
The Gentleman Balloonist
Ann Arbor, Michigan
July 10, 1928 - March21, 1982
Early mornings in the Midwest were William C. Grabb’s favorite time of day. The top of trees stood still as he left footprints in the damp grass. Only the crickets could be heard as he spread out the striped nylon onto the field. The silence was broken with a loud blast of air from the blower. The birds flew up to the highest branch as the balloon inflated and stood upright. With help from his loyal crew, he climbed into the canvas chair and fastened his seatbelt. He reached up and twisted the knob so that the flame shot upwards in a blast of heat. Quickly and silently the balloon lifted off the ground. The Gentleman Balloonist has taken flight over the fields of corn as the sun peeked over the horizon.
Bill Grabb was one of the earliest hot air balloonists. He was the first licensed balloonist in his home state of Michigan. He became interested in the sport while talking to a friend at a party in 1967. Bill looked into ballooning and discovered Raven Industries, the foremost balloon manufacturer in the U.S. at that time. He flew to Sioux City, Iowa and took two days of lessons from the Vice-President Ed Yost. The Federal Aviation Agency granted him a balloon license immediately. The license process is much more demanding today. Bill flew home to Michigan with his $3500 red, white, and blue striped balloon he named Yankee Doodle.
Bill was always one to follow his passions. He was born in Fairport, New York in 1928 and moved to Michigan to attend university. He fell in love with the state and his wife Cozy. They had three children who later became his balloon crew.
In 1973 at 16 years old, his son David Grabb, became a licensed balloonist also. They shared their love of floating in the air which David turned into a fulltime job as a Pilot for United Airlines. David is currently flying internationally as a 747 Captain. That fateful conversation about ballooning in 1967 led to new friends, trips, and even his son’s career.
Bill grew up with a love of flying. Dr. William Grabb served in the U.S. Air Force from 1954-56. He also wanted to pursue a career healing and helping others. He attended Medical School at the University of Michigan and eventually became Head of Plastic Surgery at the University. His solitary weekend escapes often found him drifting over the University Medical Center. His balloon had only room for one person, a hanging canvas chair with his feet dangling down.
He began to spend his summer vacations driving the family to the U. S. National Hot Air Balloon Championships. While competing in the U.S. Nationals in Indianola, Iowa, he saw power lines in his landing path. Realizing that a collision was inevitable, he stretched his legs out straight and broke the barbed wire fence with the rubber soles of his shoes. Usually the landings involved irate farmers, trampled cornfields and grazing cows. Dressed like he was going out to dinner with a handkerchief in his pocket, Bill would calmly offer to pay the farmers for damage to their fields. Bill’s official pilot’s uniform included a light blue shirt and plaid pants and with a red cravat around his neck.
Bill learned to survey the landscape from above and land in fields close to the rural roads. His family and friends would follow him through the Michigan countryside before sunrise. It became a rite of passage for his children Betsy, David and Anne to become the balloon chasers as soon as they got their driver’s licenses. They became experts at following the tiny balloon through the maze of dirt roads hoping they had made the right turn to follow their dad. He was well known in southeast Michigan after being spotted in the air and in newspapers. His hobby caused many people to become hot air balloonists in the area.
Bill flew more than 250 hours in his lifetime both nationally and internationally. He flew his first Gas Balloon flight in 1971 from Sint Niklaas, Belgium and flew again in the same race the following year. In July 1972, he took his family to the “Dolder Alpine Balloon Meet” in Switzerland. That same year he was the CIA Ballooning Commission Delegate to the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in Paris, France. Bill was a participant in the World Hot Air Balloon Championship in 1973.
He continued his gas ballooning in 1978 from Aspen, Colorado flying over the Continental Divide in “Columbine II” flying with co-pilots Ernst Krauer, Bill Grabb and Jerry Tepper.
Bill was elected President of the Balloon Federation of American from 1971-1973. The picture of him to the right is from the Nationals program from 1974. He also flew at the U. S. National Hot Air Balloon Championships in Indianola during those early years. Nationally, he participated in the XIII Winter Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Lake Placid, New York in 1980 by flying over the stadium.
Bill Grabb competed in the U.S. National Balloon Races from 1970-75 and the 7-Up Races from 1968-72. The racetrack of the Indianapolis 500 was the site for the 7-Up Races.
Bill organized the first Annual Balloon Race in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1971 and placed first in the Capt Phogg Invitational Balloon Classic (Flint, MI) in 1972. His life tragically ended at the age 53 from a heart attack in 1982. Bill Grabb enjoyed life, pursued his interests, and was always a gentleman to the end.
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