WINZEN, Otto C. (1917 - 1979)
Otto Christian Winzen was a German-American aeronautical enginnering which in late 40's started the modern era of scientific ballooning introducing new materials and construction methods that provoked great advance in that field. Also he co-founded one of the long lastings companies devoted to provide balloon manufacturing and services.
He was born on October 24, 1917 in Germany, living great part of his chilhood in Cologne, but at the age of 20 he emigrated to the United States. There, He studied at the University of Detroit Mercy, obtaining a degree on Aeronautical Engineering. As occured to many Japanese and German inmigrants he would spent great part of the World War II in a internment camp. During his years at the University he would met two key figures in his life: the aeronaut Jean Piccard and throught him Vera Habrecht, daughter of a Society photographer from Detroit.
After the war Winzen began working as chief engineer at the Minnesota Tool and Manufacturing Corporation, a small engineering company from Minneapolis. Around this time he was already happily married with Vera. In late 1945 while he was seeking advice from University of Minnesota to develope instruments for Navy dive-bombers, Winzen was contacted by Piccard who convinced him to join his project of a stratospheric manned mission. The Navy was pushing great interest in the project which would become known as Helios. One of the companies involved in the project was General Mills Inc. (GMI), also from Minneapolis. Soon after beginning to work on the project, Winzen was hired by GMI to work on their balloon development efforts and to establish what would become their Aeronautical Laboratories. The first balloon designed by Winzen was launched on September 25, 1947. During his stay at GMI he introduced several innovations ranging from a new system to heat sealing the balloon gores to load tapes that supported the weight of the payload, obtaining his first patent.
In 1948 Winzen left General Mills to establish his own balloon manufacturing company, Winzen Research, Inc. (WRI). This was possible thanks to the money borrowed from his wife's parents.
At WRI Winzen pioneered the use of polyethylene resin for plastic balloons, which he already used in General Mills. Produced from ethylene, a petroleum derivative, the polyethylene was light, relatively cheap, and unaffected by ultraviolet radiation. Winzen convinced his manufacturing sources to find ways to make the plastics thinner and thinner until his balloons were thinner than human hair. By the decade of 1950, Winzen had sold plastic balloons to the Navy, the Air Force and several Universities for projects like Moby Dick, Strato-Lab, Skyhook, a secret reconnaissance mission to overfly Russia called Project Genetrix, as well other scientific projects.
Specially focused on manned projects, he developed the SKy Car manned gondola system as part of the training needed for the pilots. With that system he made his first piloted flight along with Major David G. Simons from Bloomington, Illinois on 19 December, 1956 and his first solo flight on April 30, 1957 from Fleming Field, the main launch base from Winzen of that epoch. He obtained his pilot balloon license (#1386827) in August that year.
1958, would prove to be a hard year for Winzen. While he was planning the third flight of the program MANHIGH he divorced from his wife. The couple had no natural children with the exception of a daughter from the first marriage of Vera, who took the surname Winzen. In August, while were in a low level balloon training flight whit Captain Grover Schock, over Ashland, Wisconsin, in an attempt to land before winds swept the balloon out over Lake Superior, the envelope was manually cut loose prematurely and the gondola fell about 100 feet to the ground. Both men were gravely injured. Winzen sustained fractures of the collarbone, two ribs, two vertebrae, right wrist, and lower arm, but against it's own expectations at the moment of the accident, he survived.
In early 60's Otto married with Marion Grzyll, his second wife. The company was very prosperous during that decade, with many balloon contracts, which permited Winzen for example to build a large collection of classic and sports cars which were kept in an hangar at Fleming Field. Among the innovations in the management of the company Winzen had created an employee profit sharing fund to which he would make annual deposits reflecting the annual profits of the company. Later when the increasing competition in the field of ballooning made these payments began to decline, Winzen created an employee stock option plan, which was one of the firsts such plans to be implemented in the United States.
At the end of the decade Winzen moved the manufacturing plant to Sulphur Springs, Texas. Those times are also signaled by several sources as the start of the debacle for him: first with the deterioration of his relationship with Marion, and second as a result of the cesion of control of the company to the employees, their enginnering staff no longer looked to him for advice, while at the same time her visits to the plant were sharply reduced. Slowly, depression started to set in until on November 23, 1979 at the age of 58, he committed suicide. Coincidence or not, the day of his death is the same of the birth of his first wife, Vera, whom always signaled that fact as a "macabre thing". Winzen was cremated and his ashes were placed in a niche at Resurrection Cemetery in Minnesota next to his second wife.
During his life he participated as central speaker in many Symposia and Congress related to scientific ballooning and space activities, as well in 1957 he was delegate before the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. He was also honorary member of the Lighter Than Air Society (LTAS) and was considered by many one of the most authoritative voices in the field.
In 1993 the board of Directors of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, introduced the Otto C. Winzen Lifetime Achievement Award. This prize, created to honour the memory of Winzen is presented for outstanding contributions and achievements in the advancement of free flight balloon systems or related technologies. This award is conceded biennially (in odd-numbered years) at the Aircraft Technology Integration and Operations Forum or Balloon Systems Conference.