Bill Costen rides high in his hot air balloon. (Courtesy photo)
Bill Costen rides high in his hot air balloon. (Courtesy photo)

Bill Costen, an African-American born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1947, received the prestigious lifetime achievement, “Ed Yost Master Pilot Award,” from the Balloon Federation of America in a ceremony on Sunday, Sept. 11 in Bloomfield, Connecticut, at The First Cathedral Church.

The award recognizes lighter than air pilots who have demonstrated professionalism, skill and aviation expertise by maintaining safe operations for 40 or more consecutive years as active pilots.

During the award presentation, Costen’s daughter, Chantal Potter, a highly-celebrated Black Entertainment Television (BET) producer and filmmaker, presented a movie trailer from a documentary she’s currently producing titled, “Sky Endeavors: The Story of a Black Balloon Pilot.”

Bill Costen, born William Hollis Costen, is a hot air balloon pilot, business owner, photojournalist, professional photographer, Black memorabilia collector, curator, archivist and exhibitor.

He grew up playing sports and earned a Boy Scouts of America Eagle Scout badge by the age of 13.  He played football in high school and graduated from Central High in 1965. He attended the University of Nebraska in 1965, later transferring to Morris Brown College in Atlanta where he graduated with a double major in mathematics and psychology and received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1970.

After graduation, the Buffalo Bills drafted him as a defensive tackle. During his very first game, he realized a dream as he picked up the ball on a blocked punt and scored the only touchdown for Buffalo against the New York Jets.

His ballooning career began in 1975 when he created and designed “The State of Connecticut Bicentennial Balloon,” which was dedicated by Governor Ella Grasso. He became a Raven (Aerostar) Dealer and started Sky Endeavors with Jim Isler – a hot air balloon company dealing in sales, instruction, rides and promotions.

Throughout the years, Costen has trained several people to become balloon pilots and has used his balloon for advertising purposes for many major corporations. Schools have used his balloon to motivate, reward and entertain students. As the first Black commercial hot air balloon pilot in the U.S., he was featured in Ebony Magazine in 1977 and Black Enterprise in both 1981 and 1989.

The president and CEO of Sky Endeavors LLC (hot air balloon promotions) since 1975 and he created, in 1988, and owns The Costen Cultural Exhibit – a unique collection of rare photographs, ephemera, memorabilia, fine art and collectibles which has an emphasis on African Americans throughout history. Topics address the interests of all age groups and include: Africa, slavery, civil rights, politics, government, invention, science, athletics, sports, aviation, military, music, dance, theater, literary arts, religion, radio, film, television and other forms of popular entertainment. It includes exhibitions on the history of “African American Golf,” “The Tuskegee Airmen,” “The Pullman Porters” and a photographic history of “The Freedom Schooner Amistad.”

Congratulations Bill Costen for a life of service and leadership.

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