Bill Costen, Master Hot Air Balloon Pilot And Former Footballer, Opens New Exhibit In Hartford Library

One corner of the new exhibit on the third floor of the Hartford Public Library is reserved for its creator. A few poster-boards attempt to tell the story of Bill Costen, a seven decades-long saga of hot air balloons, professional football and archiving better told by the man himself.

Costen’s exhibit runs through Dec. 14. Titled “In Honor of African American Veterans: The Costen Cultural Exhibition,” it commemorates the Tuskegee Airmen, Buffalo soldiers and a long history of African Americans serving in the U.S. military — and it represents just a fraction of Costen’s collection of artifacts and memory, what he calls “history that’s going on right now.”

“What you see is 10 percent of what I have,” he said in an interview. “Probably less.”

Costen, who lives in Bloomfield, came to Hartford not long after being drafted by the Buffalo Bills, a 14th round pick out of Morris Brown College in the 1970 draft. A 6-foot-5 defensive tackle, he played in a handful of preseason games before being cut. He was relegated to the Bills’ farm team, the Hartford Knights. A native of Omaha who went to college in Atlanta, Costen arrived in Hartford dejected, wondering how life had led him here.

“Total disappointment,” he said. “Little dump town. Turned out, it was the best thing that ever happened.”

At night, he practiced at Dillon Stadium with a few dozen other men eyeing NFL comebacks. They all worked full-time jobs, Costen recalled, he as a property casualty underwriter at Travelers. While working at Travelers, Costen’s cousin approached him with an idea. A friend had seen a hot air balloon off the Jersey Turnpike and pulled off the highway, transfixed by the billowing bulb of cloth and heated air. Did Bill want to join them and start a ballooning club?

Costen, his cousin and four friends pooled some funds and bought a balloon. They flew the balloon recreationally, and in 1975, Costen bought his own balloon for $4,800 and launched Sky Endeavors, which he ran for 42 years. He estimates he’s taken thousands of people up, mostly over the Farmington Valley, always at sunrise or an hour before sunset.

In 1977, Costen was profiled in Ebony magazine, which reported that the 29-year-old was one of two licensed “black aeronauts” in the United States. Costen says he is the first black pilot to hold a commercial balloon license.

Costen was recognized in 2016 as an “Ed Yost Master Pilot,” named after the founder of awarding group, the Balloon Federation of America. Its president, Cheri White, said he was the first African American pilot to receive the award.

“Forty-two years, everything’s happened,” he said. “I’ve landed on the Jersey Turnpike — twice. I’ve landed on buildings, on houses, in a swamp, on I-84.”

Costen gave up piloting this year, but he has not shelved another pursuit that, like hot air balloons, approaches obsession for the 70-year-old. He was always a collector, he said, starting with coins as a 10-year-old. In the 1980’s, he began visiting weekend baseball card shows. He was less drawn to the cards than the memorabilia: gloves, balls, helmets, equipment, the things touched by people who made history.

He noticed, though, that there were plenty of white kids at these weekend shows and no African American kids. Costen created a traveling exhibit of sports memorabilia and brought it to some Hartford schools. But he realized sports were too narrow. Not every kid was interested. At the time, he was also becoming interested in old postcards. He started a collection of postcards depicting the African American experience, including, he said, the “negative, Jim Crow-type cards.” He collected them all: Ku Klux Klan and segregationist imagery, but also cards depicting black musicians, organizers, writers and poets.

His collection, he said, chronicles the entirety of African American history, memorialized in artifacts, photographs and memorabilia. He has the leather flight jacket of Lemuel Custis, a Tuskegee Airman and the first black police officer in Hartford. He has shackles, rusted and twisted now, that clanked on slaves building the nation’s first railroads.

As a child, “there were black people in Omaha,” he recalled, “but there was no black history on the books at all.” A sliver of his own family history went undiscovered for years; in the 1960’s, Costen worked as a porter on the Omaha-headquartered Union Pacific Railroad. Years later, he learned his grandfather had been a porter for the same railroad. Costen’s portrait and that of his grandfather are both on display at the library.

“I always wanted to have a museum,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do, all these years. It takes money, it takes time. Takes money.”

And so his daughter, who graduated from Howard University with a degree in film, has been filming a documentary for the last seven years about her father’s life. It is a museum of sorts, a monument to his life. Costen expects it to be produced soon. Another dream is to see his ballooning equipment placed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Kids don’t see this in their curriculum in their schools,” he said, gesturing to the artifacts that line the library hallway. “Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, OK. What about Bill Costen? He did a few things.”

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