The end of an era as last of Flying Allens passes

Mar 22, 2012

Batavia family of balloonists performed throughout the country

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Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 12:00 am

“It is, without a doubt, the most thrilling act available in this country. We thought it was about the most daring stunt on record a couple of years ago when Eddie and Florence did a triple parachute drop from 3000 feet above the ground. But this is almost beyond comprehension, that human beings can execute it.” Sam Glass, Spring Mill Fire Company Fair chairman.

They were perhaps the most famous family in Batavia.

If not, they were certainly the most daring.

Edward Allen Sr. and his children were the second-and-third generation of balloonists, performing throughout the country as The Flying Allens.

And now the last of the Flying Allens is gone.

Edward B. Allen Jr. died March 1 in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was 93.

“He was outgoing and had a great sense of humor,” his sister, Millie Stambach said. “He was fun to be around, right up until the time he left this world.”

Mrs. Stambach lives in State Street, the only member of the Allen family still living in this area and the last link to a time when daredevils of all kinds roamed country fairs.

The Flying Allens were among the top acts in the country, if not the world.

“It was very exciting,” Stambach, 88, said. “The traveling was tremendous. We were practically in every state in the country.”

Stambach and her mother, Louise, were the only members of their family who didn’t participate in the balloon act.

“I took after my mother,” she said. “It just wasn’t in our blood. I don’t know how that gets in someone’s blood. It’s just there.”

It sure was in the blood of most other members of the Allen family, dating back to the Civil War.

It was then that Ira Allen of Dansville became fascinated with military spy balloons, smoke-filled balloons used by the Union Army.

After the war Ira returned home and with his brothers Comfort and Martin earned money in a tight-rope act, money that went toward the construction of his own hot-air balloon.

He first performed at the Pullman and Hamilton Circus in 1877, sailing above the crowd and performing “daring feats on the trapeze beneath,” according to an article in the Dansville Advertiser.

Comfort Allen and his wife Mary had twin sons, Edgar and Edward. They began doing stunts at age 15, performing a double-parachute suspension, with trapeze bars beneath the balloon basket.

The boys would hang from their knees on the trapeze bar and then cut themselves loose and parachute to the ground.

Edward, known as “Red” or “Captain Eddie Allen,” and his wife, Louise, moved to Batavia in 1921, raising six children at their home at 57 Vernon Ave.

All but Stambach performed with the family.

Instead of flying, Stambach and her mother helped on the ground, securing balloons and running ropes.

She was 10 years old when she first saw her older brother Edward, make his first parachute jump.

“I wasn’t scared for him at all,” she said. “We grew up with it.”

The family was close, she said, doing normal family activities through the school year and then traveling together all summer.

Her older brother was, perhaps, the star of the family and not just because of his ballooning and parachuting skills.

Edward was a star athlete at Batavia High School and was in the school’s first Hall of Fame.

He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and was discharged as a captain in the Air Force before returning to civilian life in 1945.

He was an all-American football player at University of Pennsylvania, playing fullback, and in 1947 was drafted by the Chicago Bears.

“He signed for three years,” his sister recalled. “On the last game of his first season he was blindsided by another player and wrecked his knee.”

Allen coached football at Drexler University after his career ended and then, when Drexler dropped its football program, he worked in financial services in Philadelphia.

Ballooning, though, remained in his blood and he continued to perform through the 1950s.

It was when he was a teenager that he garnered the most fame as a balloonist, and for good reason.

Their act was spectacular.

Here is what Eddie and Florence Allen did, according to a flier advertising the daring duo:

“Charming, blonde, 19-year-old Florence leaves the earth concealed in a stout cannon. The balloon carries the cannon, Florence and Eddie to untold heights, which only the whimsies of the evening breeze determine.

“After reaching a spot high over the fair crowds, the cannon is fired, pretty Florence is shot from it with terrific force catapulted into space. If she does not release her parachute at the exact moment, well, another story than this will next be told.”

The last line of that proved to be prophetic as the Allen family was not without its share of tragedy. More than its share.

Eddie and Florence’s sister, Gloria, died in 1937, a week after her parachute got tangled with Eddie’s and she hit the ground hard.

Younger brother Joseph, then 15, died when he tried to open one of the “bombs” used to project fliers from the cannon. The bomb exploded in the basement of the Vernon Avenue home.

Four years later sister Arlene parachuted into power lines in Bristol, Tenn., and suffered burns and shock. She died two-and-a-half years later.

Those tragedies are something Stambach doesn’t wish to reflect on now.

She prefers the fond memories of her close family.

Her father, she recalled, continued to make jumps until 1979, when the Flying Allen act finally ended. Edward Allen Sr. died in 1984.

Her brother Eddie’s son, David, carried on the family tradition for many years, using modern hot-air balloons. He founded “Magical Mystery Flights” in Media, Pa., and was known as one of the most accomplished balloon experts in the world. He died of a heart attack in 2007 at age 54.

The Flying Allens live on, though, as part of the nation’s aviation history.

Stambach said the balloon equipment, including parachutes and trapeze bars, are at Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

More items are on display at the National Balloon Museum and U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame in Indianola, Iowa, where patriarch Edward Allen Sr. was inducted in 2008.

And Stambach has her own memories, especially of her older brother Eddie.

“He was the last survivor,” she said. “I last saw him four years ago when I flew to Denver for his 90th birthday. But we talked on the phone every two weeks right up until he died. I was planning on going out to see him this summer.”