Catching a late flight

A great-great-grandmother takes her first hot-air balloon ride at age 92.
Sunday, October 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:11 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Margaret Ritter isn’t allowing age to get in the way of taking her life to new heights.

The 92-year-old great-great-grandmother didn’t hesitate when her family planned to send her on a trip 300 feet high in a basket beneath a balloon just for the thrill of it.

“Now that I can’t drive on account of my eyes, I just thought I’d fly,” Margaret said.

Her nephew, Denis Sutter, has a pilot’s license and owns a balloon. He made sure she kept to her word.

Margaret showed no fear as she was helped to the balloon and lifted over the walls of the basket.

Inside, she found a cushioned chair designed for her trip by her nephew, who lifted her off the ground of the city park at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 25.

Among cries of “Bye, Mom,” from her family below, she began her 45-minute adventure over Auxvasse.

“Just going up, I thought maybe it’d be bumpy, or coming down, but it wasn’t,” Margaret said. “It was just great.”

From above, she got a completely different perspective of the town she’s lived in for more than 40 years.

“It was just calm and beautiful, just to see everything and everybody down below,” Margaret said. “It was really something. All the cars looked like little toys.”

Some of the cars belonged to members of her family, who acted as balloon chasers and followed her journey over highways, gravel roads and farmlands.

The balloon landed more than two miles from its starting point.

“I was a little nervous this morning,” Margaret said after the balloon landed. “(I was) thinking, ‘Oh, should I do it or shouldn’t I?’ Well, the kids talked me into it.”

Truth be told, they didn’t give her much of a choice.

More than 20 friends and family members showed up at her door on the day of the flight and traveled the few blocks to the park to witness her journey.

“I didn’t know they were coming,” Margaret said. “I’ve got a bunch of crazy kids.”

Margaret has four sons, four daughters, 38 grandchildren, 56 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

“We all get together once a year. It’s just great,” she said.

Margaret was born in St. Louis on Jan. 17, 1912, and attended Sacred Heart School. She married Frank Ritter in 1935 and was a stay-at-home mom to her eight children.

The decision to experience the adventure came at her niece’s 40th wedding anniversary party. When Sutter asked if she’d like to take a ride in his hot-air balloon, Margaret smiled and said, “I’ve got to die some way.”

Bob Ritter, her oldest son, said he was glad she had the opportunity and the good health for the ride.

“Just knowing that she could do it at this age and that she was able to and had the health to do it, I think that’s great,” he said.

Before the flight, Sutter told Margaret and a group of spectators that the temperature inside the balloon reaches nearly 250 degrees, making the balloon, the basket and its passengers lighter than the wind.

Sutter told the group he had no control of the balloon’s direction; the wind would determine where Margaret would go on her journey.

With her nephew in control, Margaret said, she wasn’t nervous at all.

“Denis is a very good pilot,” she said. “He could tell me where everything was.”

Sutter has more than 400 hours of flight time under his belt. For him, ballooning is his biggest and most expensive hobby.

“We don’t have a fishing boat,” Sutter said. “Most people do. In comparison, our balloon is our bass boat.”

He and his wife, Ellen, own the balloon. A similar one bought today would cost between $25,000 and $30,000.

Sutter said one of the most memorable moments of Margaret’s trip was when they could see the town power plant’s cooling tower in the distance.

The plume coming from it looked like the Statue of Liberty, he said.

Sutter said he was at first a little hesitant to follow through with the trip.

“This took a lot of thought for me,” Sutter said. “(With) her age, I wouldn’t want to challenge this on a windy day. When you get a little older, you become more breakable, and there is some risk involved in our sport. Most people need to understand that before they take a flight.”

Sutter said the journey was one Margaret will probably never forget.

“She enjoyed it. It’s another milestone in her life that she’ll remember,” he said. “I’m sure tonight she’ll dream about it. I know I will.”

Good weather added to the flight experience. The temperature peaked at 81 degrees, and the wind blew calmly at 2 mph.

Once the balloon was packed into its trailer, Sutter told the gathering crowd of family members a story about how ballooning started.

As the sun set, he initiated a toast to the woman he called the newest “honorary aeronaut.”

Margaret said she enjoyed the experience and would be willing to take the trip again.

With hot-air ballooning crossed off the list, Margaret said she had no big adventures left to accomplish.

“I drove a Model-T and every other car,” Margaret said. “I was in a train and a bus and a streetcar and an airplane. What else could there be?”

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