SIMONS, Vera (1920 - 2012)

Vera Habrecht Simons, was a German/American Aeronaut and artist whom played a very important role in balloon development and atmospheric exploration.

She was born in Heidenheim (Brenz), Germany on November 23, 1920 to Max and Maja Habrecht. After emigrating to United States she was raised in Detroit, Michigan where his father was a very prominent social photographer. Vera had great interest in art so she studied formally at the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis School of Art, both in the twin cities area. In the early 40's she met who will become his second husband, Otto Winzen whom was then studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Detroit.

In 1949, Otto left General Mills to found his own company specialized in plastic balloons, Winzen Research, Inc. using funds that Vera borrowed from his parents. There, besides helding the two-thirds ownership of the company, she played a key role as vice-president and chief of production. Vera excelled at running the factory. She supervised the personnel and trained them to handle the very delicate polyethylene used to build the balloons. She constantly improved construction techniques and redesigned the envelopes themselves. During her decade with Winzen Research, she obtained four patents and established herself as the finest plastic balloon builder in the world.

Vera was very proud of the "balloon girls" she trained. They made very few mistakes during balloon construction and none was ever fired for negligence. The company had good training methods, frequent task rotation, and liberal rest periods. There also was a strong sense of accomplishment. Whenever a Winzen balloon was launched, Vera made sure the team that had built the balloon saw the liftoff. "To see what you've made come alive," Vera would say, "that's pretty damned exciting." She was a central figure in planning and executing the series of Air Force and Navy manned research flights of the 1950s, along with her husband.

In 1957, after obtaining her licence as gas balloon pilot, Vera represented the United States at the 30th Annual International Gas Balloon Races in Holland where she received a gold medal for her contributions to gas balloon research.

On the human side, the end of the 1950s were the most turbulent years for the Winzen marriage. This would eventually lead to Vera to file for divorce in 1958. The couple had no natural children except for one daughter from Vera's first marriage, to whom Winzen gave his name. Vera sold her interest in Winzen Research and enrolled in the Corcoran Art School in Washington, D.C. Two years later she married another recently divorced balloonist, Dr. David G. Simons.

In 1960 she moved to Houston, Texas and started a time of her life mainly focused in his artistic career. During this decade she made several expositions alone and with other artists in galleries in San Antonio and Houston as well in Mexico City, San Francisco and New York.

In 1971 she was chosen for a group exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Holland. In addition, the museum commissioned her to make a gas balloon flight from the museum grounds. She titled the project "Drift Amsterdam" and took time-lapse photographs while floating across Holland. Other installations include a silver helium filled structure, which she called "The Elevator" that floats in a plastic ceiling high case. Another project she developed, "Sky Structure", consisted of 150 5-foot tetrahedrons linked together and filled with helium. It flew above Milwaukee's Lake Front Festival of the Arts in 1971. During this time she also made exhibitions in places as far as Brazil, Venezuela and Australia.

The echoes of the "Drift Amsterdam" projects led her to try to perform a similar effort in America. Thus she conceived a project that would combine her two loves: art and ballooning in a series of flights called "Da Vinci" aimed to perform "in situ" research on atmospheric pollution along with installations of original kinetic art. The four manned helium gas balloon flights were sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, General Electric, and the National Geographic which published detailed accounts of the feat in the magazine. The first flight was performed in 1974 over New Mexico while the second and third flights were launched from St.Louis in June and July, 1976. That same year in October, Simons was part of the team that supported the attempt of Atlantic crossing made by balloonist Ed Yost acting as operator to manage the flight operations from Ed's launch point near Bangor, Maine, to the halfway point in the Atlantic.

For the last flight of the Da Vinci project known as "Davinci Transamerica" which was carried out in 1979 Vera would spent two years designing and supervising the construction of a two-decker fiberglass gondola. During the flight (which established a new overland distance record in the U.S.) Vera dropped tiny tetrahedron balloons carrying Douglas Fir seedlings into cleared areas, took time-lapse photographs, made sound recordings, and used mirrors to create special lighting effects in the clouds for the spectators on the ground.

His final involvement with the balloon field would come in 1984, when she staged "Project Aeolus" in which three plastic balloons, lit from within and connected between them were launched simultaneously into the night time New Mexico sky. The balloons were piloted by noted balloonists Joe Kittinger, Ben Abruzzo (along with Vera) and Larry Newman.

Vera continued his career as a recognized international artist. Her kinetic art pieces, collages and oils were shown in galleries in New York, London, Berlin, Dublin, San Antonio and Houston. Her work was featured in group shows alongside her contemporaries, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Andy Warhol and Christo. In great part of his art was allways present his ballooning past. As she expressed in an interview with Craig Ryan for The Pre-Astronauts book " never get it out of your blood...".

Since 1990 she lived in Austin, Texas where she established her art studio. She was still active, creating new art there the week of her death wich occured on July 31, 2012.

Balloons of the Da Vinci project piloted by Vera Simons

Launch baseDateFlight DurationExperimentPayload landing place or cause of the failure
Las Cruces (NM)11/1/197412 hDA VINCI I (Craig - Engelmann - Imboden - Simons)Wagon Mound, New Mexico, US
St.Louis (MO)6/8/197624 hDA VINCI II (Engelmann - Simons)Griffin, Indiana, US
St.Louis (MO)7/23/197626 hDA VINCI III (Engelmann - Simons)Near Moorehead, Kentucky, US
Tillamook (OR)9/26/1979135 hDA VINCI TRANSAMERICA (Birch - Engelmann - Hyde - Simons)Near Lima, Ohio, US

Related Entries

External Links

Vera Simons and the Da Vinci Balloon Project - US Centennial of Flight Commission (via Archive.Org)