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Karl Henry Stefan


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Karl H. Stefan was born and raised in Nebraska. After an adventurous and exciting life, Karl’s last flight departed at age 102. He was predeceased by his wife Lucy, and is survived by five children, eleven grandchildren, and one great grandson.

Karl enlisted in the United States Navy after high school, was accepted at Annapolis Navel Academy, and graduated with the class of 1940. He was a pilot on the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard during WWII. After an accident on landing, he spent a year recovering, including on a hospital ship being bombed by kamikazes. After the war, he went back to college to get an advanced degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the U of Minnesota. There he met his future wife, Lucy, the only woman in his class.

Karl enjoyed a lifetime of flying on fixed wing, helicopters and lighter-than-air. After retirement from the Navy, he conducted scientific ballooning research at NCAR in Boulder, CO. In the early 1970’s he set a world altitude record for hot air balloons, at 31,189 feet.

Karl was also one of the founders of The Balloon Works, a hot air balloon manufacturing company in Statesville, NC where they developed innovative new ballooning designs and technology.

Karl and Lucy’s passion was hot air and gas ballooning and they were very active in the ‘ballooning world’ in the US and internationally. They were inducted into the National Ballooning Hall of Fame in Indianola, Iowa in 2009.

Karl’s family, relatives, and friends will remember his zest for life, and living it fully.

Anchors Away….


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Mary Lou

September 18, 2018, 5:21 pm

Condolences to all!!
Glad I got to share a bit of life with Karl and Lucy.
Big hugs and love, always..

Jim Thompson

September 18, 2018, 8:05 pm

To all the family: Karl was an inspiration to me early in my ballooning days back in 1978. I met him at the pilot briefings of my first rally at Longview Texas, the Great Texas Balloon race put on by Bill Bussey who was my instructor. I was a rookie. Karl was the balloon meister. It was much later that I understood Karl’s connection to The Balloon Works and the development of the FireFly balloon line. He was a part of that tight inner circle that would make ballooning history. Karl’s remarkable contributions to the sport, the science of aeronautics and his influence and presence in it will always be remembered as a very special part of my life; one of those super special people with a history of valor and going beyond to make us proud as citizens of this great nation. He was always a gentleman and a scholar and my spirits rose each time I saw him at a balloon event. Here’s to the last and best of soaring to the next dimension of flight. Karl will be missed and his spirit will be felt in the basket with us as we keep the tradition of ballooning in the hights of our thoughts and adventures.

Bill Armstrong

September 18, 2018, 8:23 pm

Karl was one of the grand old men in our sport of ballooning. It was a pleasure to have known and worked with him, and of course with Lucy. He lived a rich life; may he rest in peace.

Gary Ruble

September 18, 2018, 8:27 pm

Karl was the Grand Gentleman of Ballooning. He will be sorely missed by his many friends in the sport and beyond.

Gary and Judy Cass

September 18, 2018, 9:25 pm

A great loss for the ballooning community. Karl’s memory will live on and on. Gentle Breezes Karl

Sue Hazlett

September 18, 2018, 9:35 pm

It was a privilege to have been friends with Karl and Lucy and to have worked with him at the Balloon Works. They both taught me a lot about balloons and about life.

Allan K. Muir

September 18, 2018, 10:00 pm

Lots of great stories will be told about the adventures that were shared, during those early days. He will be missed. Proud to have called him friend. God speed and soft landing.

Cathy Knuchel

September 18, 2018, 10:08 pm

Karl, an awesome Gentleman, always willing to share, he has been an inspiration in my life and taught me so much about ballooning, feel privileged to have known him. Karl is sorely missed by the ballooning community- his energetic connections shall continue to stay alive. RIP dear Karl – love and light
Sincerest condolences to the family

Kim McKinney

September 18, 2018, 10:09 pm

Heather and Leslie and others who loved and were loved by Karl….my thoughts are with you. While I don’t recall ever meeting Karl, his name comes up in lots of stories with balloonists. One thing for sure, these will be told forever. What an amazing life he had. May peace and great memories be with you during this time.

Keith Gantt

September 18, 2018, 10:23 pm

Many many thanks Karl for a few direct words and a world of inspiration to an 18 year old kid. A common sense approach to structural hurdles that has lasted me a lifetime.
The flight test was once again successful.
All that crossed Karl’s path have never forgotten, and I believe all left that crossing thinking about things perhaps in a slightly different way.
God bless all family and friends.

Dale Lang

September 18, 2018, 10:56 pm

I appreciated Karl back in the Balloon Works days, enjoyed some great conversations with him. A brilliant man.

Marguerite Wagner

September 18, 2018, 11:11 pm

What blessing Mr. Stefan brought to the world. His sacrifice for our country during the war won’t be forgotten by my family. And every time I see a hot air ballon I will be sending a smile and a wave his way. May your hearts find solace during this difficult time.


September 19, 2018, 1:50 am

RIP my dear friend

Walt Thompson

September 19, 2018, 8:09 am

Karl was a leader who knew what he was talking about. A pillar of ballooning. May his transition be peaceful.

Lynn Tucker

September 19, 2018, 8:32 am

It is important to me that I let each family member know that I am sorry for your loss. John Vance Chaney wrote” “The soul would have no rainbow, had the eyes no tears.” It is OK to cry. We see further through a tear then a telescope.
We have never met. I never met Karl either. As an aspiring banker with a pilot license, I attended the 1978-1979 Balloon Rally at Rhyne Aerodrome. Walking into The Balloon Works (TBW) I was mesmerized by the sights, sounds, and smells of envelope and basket production. At the time, I could not write a check for a system. I vowed to someday own a TBW FireFly7. Now, a retired 46 year banker, I am a proud owner.
There is an iconic picture taken in 1974 of the bee hive of activity within the converted chicken coops. Your father is in this picture. It became important to me to know who the individuals were that were building these incredibly beautiful aircraft. I learned of your father’s credentials, his accomplishments in engineering. In 1979 he wrote a paper entitled: “Performance Theory for Hot Air Balloons.” This paper is still being cited as late as last year 2017. His pursuits as a pilot; fixed wing, gas, hot air. His records were all researched. His role in pushing the Sport of Hot Air Ballooning into the Modern Day Golden Era is clearly evident. He was an extremely gifted man. Balloonist today are the benefactors of his work, his dedication, his giving and pursuit of excellence. The systems we are flying today are tangible evidence of your fathers work. These flying creations are enduring and timeless.
To Karl Jr.: “Thank You” for honoring your father by rebuilding N27085 (The Monarch).This is historically significant. Bravo! This is a most caring and proper salute to a father. A brilliant man whose contributions will continue to be recognized into the future. I hope to have the honor of personally seeing “Monarch” in flight. Now, as I fly my beloved Green Earth Drifter (N7126B), I hope to see the earth as Karl did. It is because of his contributions that I am afforded this “Moment in Time.” He touched lives. Many that will never be known. That is a true legacy.

Jim Knight

September 19, 2018, 8:35 am

I worked with Karl at The Balloon Works in the 1970’s. A true professional, gentleman, and great engineer. All my best to his family.

Jack Ponticelli

September 19, 2018, 8:42 am

I never got a chance to meet Karl but I have heard many stories and I see his name on many of our documents at the factory. His name will live on through his many accomplishments and contributions to lighter than air aviation and to our company The Balloon Works now Firefly Balloons. Soft landings my friend.

John Holman

September 19, 2018, 8:56 am

I became the shipping clerk at The Balloon Works in Jan 1978. My job was to get the balloon systems shipped, which meant I had to get Karl to sign off that all of the paperwork was in perfect order. This brought me into his office several time a day. What I found was this brilliant and detail oriented guy who had exceedingly high standards (his clipboards with his checklists ruled my life,) and he inspired in me an eagerness to learn to meet them. He had a lot of black and white photographs on the walls of his office of things he had done in his past: weather balloons; fighter planes, etc. He would catch me looking at them, and then we would have these extended conversations about science and engineering and history. Great guy, and a major positive influence on me as young man.

Beth Wright-Smith

September 19, 2018, 9:09 am

My sincere sympathy to the whole family.
I’m glad I was able to stay in touch with Lucy and Karl when they were in Colorado. He will be forever linked in my head with my dad, Tracy Barnes and Dodds Meddock from the early years even though Karl had an amazing life and made so many lasting contributions to ballooning in later years, also. He will be missed.

Tom Davies

September 19, 2018, 10:16 am

RIP Karl. It was an honor to call you my friend.

Bob Sparks

September 19, 2018, 10:49 am

Karl, we finally agreed that we were both correct about our discussions re:propane and burners. Thank you for your knowledge passed along to me, and the friendship for the years we spent fine-tuning the ideas. Go with my happiness of knowing you.

Bill & Nancy Meadows

September 19, 2018, 11:53 am

We remember Karl and Lucy as personal friends and business associates. I met Karl (along with Terry Wright and Dodds Meddock) around 1971 or 1972 when Tracy formed his FireFly development team at the Women’s Prison in Charlotte NC. We all then worked together when Tracy moved to Rhyne Aerodrome in Statesville in 1974. It was a great pleasure to have worked with Karl during the early “chicken house days”! They were fun and exciting days. We all were happy in our work and proud of our achievements. We will miss you Karl as you fly around the heavens above us!

Linda Nash

September 19, 2018, 12:05 pm

Karl gave me a great gift. He was the person who passed my check ride and said “congratulations, you are now a pilot”. RIP my friend.

King Sprott

September 19, 2018, 12:28 pm

My saddest regards, Heather. I am grateful I got to be with you and Karl last year. Your mom and dad, and other shared friends such as the now-gone Dunns, made ballooning in the ’70s a joyous festival. King

Jack Nisley

September 19, 2018, 1:49 pm

I met Karl several times, usually at safety seminars. He was always smiling, and a true gentleman. He knowledge of aviation was incredible. He will be missed.

Rocky Bailey

September 19, 2018, 3:18 pm

So long my old friend and instructor. You set me on a 44 year aviation adventure.

The Stefan Family is in my thoughts.

Robert Romaneschi

September 19, 2018, 3:48 pm

Although I never had the opportunity to meet Karl, his contributions to the development of modern day hot air balloons was well known to me. We have all benefited in one way or another for what you have given to our sport. Thank you Karl. My sincere condolences to you family and friends.

Julian Nott

September 19, 2018, 9:16 pm

I knew Karl for many years. He is described here as “The Grand Old Man of ballooning” but there was nothing old about him in the early days of modern hot air ballooning when he contributed greatly. Surprisingly little has changed since. Thank you Karl for your contributions to the sport I love and to all of us for your Navy service.

Daniel Cave

September 19, 2018, 11:10 pm

Thank you Karl. May you now truly fly high and land softly.

Betsey Rasmussen

September 20, 2018, 12:14 am

Dear Cousins,
I am sorry to hear that Uncle Karl has taken his last flight. RIP Uncle Karl.
Love, Betsey

Becky Wigeland

September 21, 2018, 12:13 am

Stefan family,
Your parents will both go down in ballooning history as true original Ballooning Pioneers! I’ve enjoyed all our times together both in Colorado and in Iowa. Our thoughts and prayers are with you all.
Becky Wigeland
National Balloon Museum

JC Weber

September 21, 2018, 12:40 pm

So sad! Karl was one of my idols, now he has become one of my monuments.
Thank you Karl for your generosity and for your life-long contributions. We will dearly miss you.
Jean Claude Weber
FAI Ballooning Commission President of Honour
FAI Executive Board Member

Marsha Meddock

September 21, 2018, 6:43 pm

The Meddock Family sends their condolences to the family. We had such good times with all of the family in Statesville, Indianola and various other ballooning events. Our thoughts are with you. Soft landings, The Meddock Family

Lesley Pritchard

September 22, 2018, 9:54 am

Much love and respect to Karl and each member of the Stefan family. It is an honor to have known you all so well and to have shared so much. I treasure the exciting times and priceless memories. Your parents are truly extraordinary icons of our ballooning community and their legacy will never end. They both represented the grace, generosity, bravery and brilliance that continues to inspire me. Sweet dreams, Karl!

Michael Shouse

September 24, 2018, 10:09 pm

My deepest condolences to the family. Karl was a TBW colleague, my first LTA instructor and a genuinely wonderful friend for 45 years. I will never forget his dedication & passion for flight. After work one day on a moments notice he and Lucy volunteered to give me my first hour of instruction in my brand new balloon. During the inflation Lucy was on the crown in her best dress and high heals. Little did Karl and I notice that the crown line had wrapped around Lucy’s heal dragging her across the field as the envelope lifted skyward. When she finally managed to break free in her grass stained dress with broken heal in hand, we laughed until we cried… A day I will never forget! RIP Karl & Lucy

Dave Steven

September 24, 2018, 11:56 pm

One day in the mid 70’s my wife Janis and I were driving thru Bar Harbor, ME. We were stopped at a traffic light and this pretty girl peaked in our car window and said ” Oh, are you balloonists?” My wife had a chambray shirt on with an embroidered Piccard balloon patch. “My Dad is Karl Stefan” she exclaimed. We had recently sold our balloon and were now proud owners of a FireFly AX-6. Later I would come to know Karl and Lucy personally as a Balloon Works dealer and a Repair Station owner. Those were great days at the Rhyne Aerodrome; never to be duplicated. Proud to have known your dad and grandfather. A life well lived!

Jim Rogina

December 7, 2018, 5:59 pm

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Karl was 38 years my senior when we met circa 1974. Eventually, I lived in Statesville; working with Karl every day for months thru the certification flight testing of The Balloon Works first AX-8-24. – I was an impatient, even impertinent 20 year-old aeronautical engineering student; but Karl was warm, understanding and inspirational. At least that’s how I remember it–During those years, now more than 40 years ago…..he published an avant-garde paper on the quantification of hot-air balloon fuel consumption but still had the political flexibility to assist me in showing that a payload could be safely suspended on-top of a Balloon Works balloon. Basically, he became a very important guy in my life- hope – Hold-tight Karl — You were a great scientist, and a great guy.

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