Attention to Detail...
Near Albuquerque, New Mexico
February 11, 1985
A Life of Service...
Benjamin L. Abruzzo was born in 1930 in Rockford, Illinois. He went to school there, having graduated from the University of Illinois in 1952, and then entered the United States Air Force. After graduation, Abruzzo was stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base, near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Upon leaving the Air Force in 1954, he continued to live in New Mexico, adopting it as his home state.
There, Abruzzo took an interest in hot air ballooning, and learn how to master the art of flying such an aircraft. He also became a self-made millionaire, becoming the chairman and president of the Sandia Peak Tram Company, which built the longest tramway in North America up the side of Sandia Peak east of Albuquerque.
He also developed real-estate, building homes on land that was only tumbleweeds and rocks, at Sandia Heights, a 1,500-acre subdivision at the base of Sandia Peak. He also had a keen interest in skiiing, buying real estate in and around ski resorts.
Ballooning Like a Pro!
In 1977, he joined the crew of the Double Eagle I – which was attempting to become the first balloon to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Previous attempts to cross the water body had resulted in five deaths in the early 1970s.
But, during the Double Eagle's attempt, Abruzzo suffered exposure and frostbite while over Iceland and was forced to abandon the attempt. In 1978, he - along with Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman - made a second attempt in the Double Eagle II. They took off from Presque Isle in Maine on August 11th, and made a successful landing in Miserey, France, six days later. For their successful efforts, the team was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1979.
In an effort to leave no ocean unbridged by balloon, Abruzzo joined the Double Eagle V team, which was the first balloon to cross the Pacific Ocean in November 1981. At the time, it was also to longest trip by a team in a balloon.
On Monday, February 11, 1985, the 54-year-old Abruzzo, along with his 52-year-old wife, Patricia, and four friends, departed the Coronado Airport near Albuquerque, in a Cessna 421 - tail number N6866K - bound for Aspen, Colorado, on a ski vacation. However, during the plane's takeoff roll, the plane's right baggage door opened. Observers on the ground observed the aircraft turn left onto a downwind with the landing gear extended.
Witnesses differ on their accounts on what happened next – two reported that they saw the left engine stop running, and two other witnesses stated that the right engine had a reduction of power. Nevertheless, at the end of the downwind leg, instead of making a proper base-leg turn, the Cessna entered a left descending turn.
Gary Card, a 28-year-old state Highway Department inspector, said he watched the crash from his car as he waited at a nearby stop sign. "I looked up and saw it about 100 feet above the trailers," he said. "I kept thinking he was going to pull up, but he kept going down."
The plane then sheared treetops as it cleared a mobile home park, fell onto Interstate 25, bounced across the freeway, exploded into flames and came to rest 100 yards east of the freeway frontage road just west of a mobile home park. According to Card, "Everything was engulfed in fire.”
A Fiery End...
Card said he went to the scene after the plane exploded in "a ball of fire" to see if he could help. He said he and several others "ran up and looked inside it made a spewing noise and we ran back and then it blew up a little more."
All six aboard – Abruzzo, his wife, Beverly Mullin,47; Barbara Quant, 55; Cynthia Miller, 50; and Marsha Martin, 54, were all killed in the impact and fire. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident.
When they conducted an examination of the wreckage of N6866K, the investigators found that the landing gear was down, the left propeller was feathered, and there was evidence the right baggage door was open. The throttle quadrant was found with the left throttle two-thirds forward, the right throttle full aft, the left prop control in the feather position, the right prop control full forward, and both mixture controls at or near their forward-most positions.
It was also noted by the NTSB that the flight characteristics of the Cessna 421 were considered normal with the baggage door open.
The NTSB, in their final report on the accident, concluded the probable cause of the accident was the pilot's improper execution of an emergency procedure, with factors contributing to the accident being the pilot's inadequate preflight inspection of the Cessna, the presence of the trees, the unlocked baggage door, and the pilot's diverted attention due to the open baggage door.
He helped place Albuquerque on the map as the balloon capital of the world, and his name lives on in the new Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum in Albuquerque.
His son, Richard, also a became a noted balloonist, but disappeared - along with his co-pilot, Carol Davis - during "The Gordon Bennett Cup" race while over the Adriatic Sea. In early December of 2010, wreckage from their balloon, along with their bodies, were discovered - confirming their fate.