On July 4, 1883, Walter Davis and Rose Kennedy stepped into the basket of a hot air balloon and, after ascending 50 feet, were married in front of a crowd of some 50,000 at Monumental Park in Cleveland.
A New York Times reporter who rode along inside the “flapping monster” during the ceremony wrote, “The landscape seemed to be one immense water-color painting spread out below, and as the shouts of the population grew fainter and fainter Cleveland spread out like a bird’s-eye view.”
The effect was slightly ruined when the balloon’s drag rope got caught in some telegraph wires, giving the occupants “a fearful wrench,” followed by the balloon bumping along the top of an orchard until a quick-thinking farmer seized the drag rope.
While this 1883 newspaper account was one of the earliest mentions of an aerial wedding we could find, it certainly isn’t the first. According to History of [Washington Harrison] Donaldson’s Balloon Ascensions, the famed aeronaut took the first wedding party aloft on October 19, 1874, over Cincinnati.
In its July 4, 1890, edition, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that the “respectable but poor” Lottie Anderson married Christopher Stowell, a Boston electrician, in a balloon before a crowd of 10,000 in Lowell, Massachusetts. It was the brainchild of the proprietor of a local dime store, who gave the young couple free house furnishings as an incentive.
Gifts and other inducements were the norm in “fixed-wing weddings” too. In August 1927, when heavy rain and low visibility cancelled a scheduled aerial wedding at the Teterboro airport, the Hackensack Lodge of Elks, sponsoring the air meet, offered a “substantial wedding gift” to any New York or New Jersey couple who would volunteer to be married in midair during the meet’s rain date. They would also supply part of the bridal party: Thea Rasche, Germany’s first female aerobatics pilot, and Bert Acosta, who flew the America from Long Island to France, along with Commander Richard E. Byrd, just 33 days after Lindbergh set the transatlantic record.
The opening of Raven Rock Airport in Portsmouth, Ohio, was the reason behind the aerial wedding of John Pearce and Jessie McCall in November 1927. And 27 couples competed a year later for a mid-air wedding in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, which came with a check for $100 and household furnishings.
Newspaper articles record a change about this time. Rather than a financial incentive, couples appeared to start selecting aerial weddings simply for the novelty. In late 1928, Lilon Arthur Garwood and Arden Smith—along with the bride’s pet squirrel—climbed into a Fokker and took off. They were accompanied by a reverend, and the pilot served as best man. On August 5, 1935, the first couple “of the Mormon faith to be united in an aerial ceremony” flew over Santa Ana. (The groom was an automotive engineer; the bride, a cafeteria hostess.)
A 1936 Los Angeles Times article summed up the trend. When told his friends would marry in mid-air, the best man asked disgustedly, “Why didn’t you think of something new? Airplane weddings are so common now they don’t rate more than a couple of paragraphs in the papers!”
Marrying in an airplane was still popular in the 1950s. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1955 that Carol Kness (dressed entirely in pink) and Glenn Butler (in a charcoal black suit with pink flecks) were married in a Piper Apache over Chicago. In 1960, Mr. and Mrs. Leroy Follweiler of Allentown, Pennsylvania spent most of their 30th anniversary aloft. “We were married in an airplane thirty years ago and we’ve been up in the air ever since,” said the wife. She added that the couple hoped to celebrate their 35th anniversary in a space ship. It’s several years late, but perhaps they’ll be one of the private citizens booking a flight to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere—like NASA’s former chief of staff, George Whitesides, who hopes to spend his honeymoon on a Virgin Galactic suborbital flight.