jack oneill balloon
Cover Stories

Jack O’Neill, the Balloonist?

The little-known history of a local surf legend’s aerial experiments

In addition to inventing the wetsuit, avid surfer Jack O’Neill experimented with a wild line of airships.

Laid out in black-and-white panels, it’s all there on a concrete wall along the Dream Inn near the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf—the history of the O’Neill surf company, which is also the history of local surf culture from 1959 on.

The porcelain-on-steel mural follows the life of Jack O’Neill, wetsuit inventor and surfing mogul, explains O’Neill marketing vice president Brian Kilpatrick, all through a picturesque photo history that’s nearly without blemish.

“What is that?” says Kilpatrick, digging his thumb into a graffiti tag on a blown-up photo of Cowell Beach that O’Neill took for Surfer magazine. “Why would someone do that? Dang.”

The series of images show a Santa Cruz coming of age. They tell the story of O’Neill’s young sons, Pat and Mike, sharing a makeshift skateboard—just a couple of disassembled roller skates nailed to a two-by-four—and carving down the hill. There’s one image of O’Neill, who ran a surf shop where the hotel is now, grinning ear-to-ear as he pushes a small boat with three Miss California contestants out for a quick sail.

Other shots display a side of him that’s bold, adventurous and whimsical—bordering almost on reckless.

“He was one of the first guys to fly hot air balloons in North America,” Kilpatrick says.

There were several incarnations of his aircraft, but in the beginning, O’Neill, a pilot in the Navy Reserves during World War II, would launch his hot air balloon from a catamaran, the Sea Odyssey—which today serves as an educational boat for kids’ field trips.

“His experimentation with that airship thing—when I see some of that stuff, I think, ‘Holy shit, he’s like a thousand feet up in there with a spinning blade behind him, with a little gas-powered lawnmower engine. Sketchy—the thing’s lighting on fire, you know what I mean?” says Kilpatrick, who’s dressed head-to-toe in black, from his sunglasses to his shoes. “No one was launching hot air balloons off of giant catamarans.”

Over the decades, the contraption evolved into more of an airship, rather like a one-man Goodyear blimp. O’Neill, who’s now 94, would take off from a beach in Santa Cruz, sometimes Twin Lakes, and try to make it to Monterey on prevailing northwest winds. The trouble was that prevailing southwest winds would kick up in the evening and blow him back toward the middle of the bay. Luckily, O’Neill had by this point invented the super suit, so when he ran out of fuel a few miles off the coast from Moss Landing and landed in the water, he could blow into his suit and inflate it, until the neoprene outfit looked like a giant balloon animal.

“He could blow it up and float in the kelp beds and float all night—or however long it took for his kids to pick him up. He was testing product, and pioneering adventure over the high seas,” says Kilpatrick, who’s worked for the company for 18 years.

Pat, who’s now CEO, and his siblings would head out in a motor boat to pick up their dad in the middle of the bay.

Beside the mural, which was installed nearly four years ago, is a plaque recognizing the site of the old Surf Shop Santa Cruz, now the site of the Dream Inn. Inside the hotel’s Aquarius restaurant is the Jack O’Neill Lounge—a bar with pictures of the icon, a prototype wetsuit and some of his favorite boards.

O’Neill actually secured a trademark for the term “surf shop,” something he never cared to enforce because it seemed like too much hassle.

Nor did O’Neill ever show any interest in selling his aircraft innovations.

But on the days that he took flight over the bay, his airship functioned as a unique advertisement, as it had the company logo and “O’Neill” in giant letters along the sides.

“His adventurous spirit courses through everything he does. I don’t think he was looking to market it. I think he was seeing it as a marketing tool, because there’s branding on the side of that thing, and you can’t miss it,” Kilpatrick says.

O’Neill knew that the sky was a good place to catch people’s eyes. He’d already had a business, after the war ended, flying advertising banners behind airplanes.

Kilpatrick says the obvious question that people have asked O’Neill for much of his life is “Why would you do something like that that?”

“He just says, ‘Why not? Because it hasn’t been done. Because I can.’”

News Editor at |

Jacob, the news editor at Good Times, won the 2014 award for best local government coverage from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. A longtime basketball and football fanatic, Jacob has evolved into a shameless fair weather fan and band wagoner for hot West Coast sports teams. He also enjoys arguing with others about where to find the best burrito in town.

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