Minnesota family flying high after honor for hot air balloon pioneer

It's been days since Donna Wiederkehr got back from the biggest balloon festival in the world and in some ways, she feels like she is still floating on air.

"It was full of great memories. It was pretty emotional. So full of joy to think about all the things he accomplished," said Wiederkehr.

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

He became one of the first 10 hot air balloonists in the country and set 22 world records, before becoming one of the original 13 pilots in the first Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in 1972.

"He used to say, 'we are floating in harmony with the winds and with mother earth and nature.' He loved that part of it. At the same time, he loved pushing those boundaries, setting world records and seeing what's possible in the sport," said Wiederkehr.

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

Nickolay and Wiederkehr's daughter Donna also flew his balloon in the Grand Ascension, joining 650 other hot air balloons in the skies over New Mexico, while nearly 2 dozen family members from across the country watched the aerial spectacle from the ground below. 

"Basically I wouldn't have been able to balloon without Matt and the Wiederkehrs," said Nickolay.

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

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

"It just felt so special and making new memories, even though Dad is no longer here, to be able to make new memories with mom and see the impact he had on the sport," said Wiederkehr.