Gingerly stepping through the halls of his Colorado Springs home, it’s easy for Charles “Dewey” Reinhard to wonder how he’ll be remembered.
To his right and left is one framed award after another. Several are from the Balloon Federation of America, recognizing him for his many aeronautical accomplishments dating back to the 1960s.
He comes to an office, surrounded by more awards. Trophies and medals from top-three finishes in some of the world’s most famous and infamous competitions. A plaque celebrating his Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame induction. Another commemorating his place in the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame.
Elsewhere, there’s an artist depiction of his mighty “Eagle” landing in the raging waves of the Atlantic Ocean — the final scene from man’s 16th attempt to cross the sea by balloon. “The Impossible Dream,” CBS called the mission.
Reinhard, 89, would rather not boast. Jeanie, his wife of seven decades, does the talking for him.
His hometown’s balloon festival. “I think that’s his real claim to fame,” she says.
The Labor Day Lift Off has become one of the nation’s biggest, free festivals of its kind — just as Reinhard envisioned when he started its predecessor, the Colorado Balloon Classic, with his own money.
That was in 1976. That was amid a career that was, on a whole, more impossible than that single dream over the ocean.
The memories come back like those waves. Yes, his mind is fresh, however broken his body.
The sore kneecaps from rough landings. The torn rotator cuffs. The mosaic of bumps and bruises and scars.
“I just discovered recently that I have a cracked vertebra that’s been there a long time,” he says — a find that made him recall that one time he was foolish enough to fly in 40 mph winds in Utah. He was later told at the hospital he merely sprained his back. (His co-pilot had it worse with a broken leg).
That’s just one story in a larger-than-life tale that begins in Pueblo, where a boy with a cartoonish nickname couldn’t fly kites; the planes landing near his home hovered so low. So low and so big that a boy could daydream forever, departing the ruins of the Great Depression.
Dewey’s old man, John Charles Reinhard, was tough like the steel that defined him, laboring long hours at the mill. His mom was sweet like her name suggested: Ella Columbine, for the Colorado state flower.
“Mom was our savior when we misbehaved,” says Dewey, who was one of four boys. “My dad would wallop us, but Mom would come to our defense. She was the shoulder to cry on.”
There was one thing that connected father and son: airplanes. They’d build models together. And one day, when Dewey was his own man and running his own businesses, finally feeling like John Charles’ equal, the two would buy a glider together.
But first, Dewey was a teenage employee of his dad, working for the trucking company John Charles started after moving the family to the Springs in 1945. Dewey didn’t think he was destined for much more.
His parents didn’t have much of an education. They didn’t have much of any expectations, so Dewey aimed for C’s on report cards.
“I figured I’m an average guy,” he says. “So C’s was where I should be.”
Loading trucks through the night. That’s where Dewey thought he should be.
Then he decided to be more than average.
Escape to the skies
He enlisted in the Navy in 1951 and proved to be a whiz with electronics. He had brains he never knew he had, and that got him in the back of a Beechcraft Model 18, posted at a navigation radar for the first flight of his life.
“First thing I remember thinking is, ‘I’d just love to jump outta this thing on a parachute,’” he says. “When I told Jeanie that, she said, ‘I can’t believe that went through your mind.’”
She became accustomed to his audacious ways. Out of the Navy in 1955, he went on to use his wits on a controversial piece of equipment: something that could eavesdrop on the bad guys. A Denver detective approached him about the concept, Reinhard says.
“I couldn’t tell you this back then,” he says, before unspooling a story about the bug he and a partner developed. At the authorities’ guidance, they’d wire certain telephone poles in the middle of the night, he says.
“We ended up meeting with the FBI in Washington, and we agreed to have the FBI OK any sales we made to anybody. They were worried about selling to corrupt police departments.”
Sure enough, the shadow agents came, Reinhard says, putting him and the company he represented in a tense situation. The technology was discontinued, he says, but the company kept him busy. Too busy, by Jeanie’s estimation.
“It was the days of three-martini lunches,” she says. “A lot of late nights.”
Seeing colleagues consumed by stress and booze, Reinhard left to start his own business in 1962. His electrical engineering firm got its first big contract from the expanding Air Force Academy in town.
“And then we got busier,” Jeanie says.
Reinhard’s mind needed ease. He was like that boy again, his eyes to the skies.
Business ventures grew to New Mexico.
“To make money, of course,” says Reinhard’s first of three sons, Steve. “But he also had an excuse to fly.”
Dewey and his dad, the hardened John Charles, had been bonding like never before since they started pursuing licenses in 1966 in a Cessna 170. The son’s path started bumpy — literally.
Reinhard missed the runway three times on his first attempts to land, always careening through the weeds. “My hands were wringing with sweat,” he says.
It was the first time fear gripped him in the pilot’s seat. Another time, on his way home from a business trip, he tried and failed to outclimb the clouds.
“It was like a milk bottle,” he says. “Couldn’t see anything.”
He couldn’t for about two hours as he tried descending, tried to steady his flopping wings and calm his pounding heart.
“Another sight I’ll never forget as long as I live,” he says, fighting back tears. “There was a blue vapor lamp in a farmer’s backyard.”
He landed there in the plains southeast of the Springs. He took the bus home and swore he’d never fly again, the first time he made such a promise.
The second time came shortly after, in 1968.
John Charles was flying over New Mexico when he had a heart attack. His wife, sweet Ella Columbine, called the control center in Santa Fe in a panic.
The plane was soaring, higher and higher. She was seeing ice on the windows. She was screaming, pleading for help.
The plane burst in midair. The two perished.
Reinhard went to Santa Fe to listen to the radio bearing his mother’s last, frantic words.
He shouldn’t have, he says now. “But I just kept waking up in the middle of the night thinking how terrified my mom was.”
The sky was merciless. No place for him, he told himself.
A balloon and a prayer
Six years later, in 1974, he and Jeanie were in California when they saw something they’d never seen before: a hot air balloon.
“Maybe we oughta look into that,” Reinhard told his wife. And she knew curiosity had gotten the best of him yet again.
By the time Reinhard started flying his own balloon, he found only a few others on the Front Range who shared the interest.
“We were just hungry for a book on how to do it,” he says. “There was just not anything published on how to do it.”
And so: “We would exchange horror stories of what not to do.”
He had horror stories aplenty. Jeanie and the boys were witnesses, chasing him in the truck, as they did once through the fields east of the Springs. They couldn’t keep up he was going so fast, out of control.
“Long story short, I ended up in Stapleton,” Reinhard says — 70-plus miles away from where he started.
He tumbled from the basket so fast and hard that he lost his trousers. “I think that was when I broke my kneecap,” he says.
The basket was metal before it was whicker, brutalizing his back on every collision. “It would leave divots in asphalt,” Steve recalls.
As it did on Pikes Peak Avenue, where it bounced hard in front of traffic, leapfrogging a tree — “Protect your eyes!” Reinhard told passenger Jeanie in the branches — and crashing into a baseball diamond.
Another time in Albuquerque, Jeanie was on board for a flight that almost ended in power lines, then almost on someone’s roof, then finally in a tree. She shimmied down to flag a motorcyclist for help.
She finally tried to reason with her husband. “This was supposed to be fun,” she said. “This isn’t very fun.”
And the boys were exhausted. Steve was in the last semester of his senior year in high school when this all began, when suddenly every day he was waking up at 4 a.m. for his dad’s flights.
“He about killed me off that year,” Steve says. “Getting up early was not on my agenda, and chasing my dad around wasn’t either.”
Then Reinhard discovered gas ballooning. Then an even more brazen idea came to him.
“I think he really wanted to be first at something,” Steve says. “You couldn’t climb Mount Everest or step on the moon, but you could fly a balloon across the Atlantic.”
Setting sights higher
The transatlantic quest was Reinhard’s first flight in a gas balloon.
The New York Times in 1977 reported: “Mr. Reinhard, the pilot, and Mr. Stephenson, the co-pilot, who met several years ago at a national air show event, say the deaths of five persons who attempted the 3,000-mile journey does not scare them ...”
All was well for 47 hours. Then a storm overtook the vessel.
Down at sea, the boys aboard the Canadian Coast Guard ship implored Reinhard and Stephenson to jump into their arms. Reinhard did — only to learn he was still attached to the harness of his gondola.
“I could just see this guy saying, ‘Why would anyone this stupid think he could fly a balloon across the Atlantic?’” Reinhard says.
He kept taking his chances around the globe. He represented the U.S. in such challenges as the Gordon Bennett Cup. Once for the event, he tag-teamed with a pilot he considered even bolder than him, Ben Abruzzo, who had it in his mind to notch a distance record from Zurich to Portugal.
A leak in their balloon led to a fast, terrifying descent in the Alps — another brush with death, Reinhard says. Abruzzo had his fair share on his way to joining the team that was the first to steer a balloon across the Atlantic.
“A great balloon pilot,” Reinhard says. “But he wasn’t a very good airplane pilot.”
In 1985, Abruzzo and his wife died in the twin-engine plane he was flying. Reinhard knew so many others whose fates were decided that way.
He started feeling strange, guilty, for the lives he seemed to have. “Like a cat,” Jeanie says.
Back to Earth
One October day in 1989, he crash-landed again in a tall pine. He turned to Jeanie and said: “I think I’ve had my fun.”
That was the last time he flew a gas balloon.
“Since I have a pacemaker,” he says now, “they call me a bird that can’t fly.”
He thought he’d miss the sky, but actually he hasn’t. He realized there were more important matters on the ground.
“It’s kind of been neat,” Steve says. “I’ve been hanging out with Dad more the last year and a half than probably my whole life.”
Tragedy precipitated that.
The family was in a hospital room when the doctor told Steve he had blood cancer. He knew his dad not so unlike Reinhard knew his own old man — “kind of strict,” Steve says, “had his ideas of what was right and what was wrong” — but then in that awful moment, Reinhard dissolved into tears.
“I wish it was me,” he kept saying. “I wish it was me.”
Driving his boy to chemo one day, he shared his plan. “I’m gonna live to be 90,” he said. “You need somebody to take care of you.”
Reinhard can’t recall ever hugging his dad. With Steve, there’s been lots of hugs. Lots of talk about feelings.
“My last year and a half with him has been really meaningful,” the son says. “Getting to see the same guy he’s always been but in a different way: caring, persevering, not stopping or willing to give up.”
Reinhard would turn 90 in September, the same week of the Labor Day Liftoff. First, this month, there was a birthday celebration for Jeanie. The family all got together, the boys and some of the seven grandkids and five great grandkids.
One afternoon before, Jeanie walked through the door to her husband’s embrace. She brought in the mail, including a birthday card.
She read it to him: “My eyesight is bad, my hearing is bad, my joints are stiff, and I have trouble staying awake. But at least I can drive.”
And to that, they had a good laugh.