During the early 1950s, a notably atypical undergraduate student was enrolled at the University of North Dakota.
While the majority of the students at the college were concerned about choosing the right major, scouting out the best parties or deciding who they wanted to date, Maxie Anderson had far different priorities. He was negotiating “million dollar deals” and making preparations to establish his own transformational mining company.
During the summers when most of the students were working at various odd jobs or helping out on the family farm, Anderson was flying his own airplane all over North America, including several trips above the Arctic Circle, mapping out various sites that appeared to have large uranium deposits.
After graduating from UND in 1956 with a degree in industrial engineering, Anderson became a co-founder of the Ranchers Exploration and Development Corp., and he later recruited several recent UND graduates to assist him in running the new company. Anderson also took up the hobby of hot air ballooning, and in August 1978, he and two crewmates became the first balloonists to sail across the Atlantic Ocean, setting records in both distance and duration.
Max “Maxie” Leroy Anderson was born Sept. 10, 1934, in Sayre, Okla., to Mr. and Mrs. Carl Anderson. Although Maxie was born during the height of the Great Depression, his father was doing very well because of the oil boom in the area. Carl owned the Anderson Corp., a trucking company that transported oil for several of the companies. He also contracted for “laying pipe for various oil companies,” and in 1941, was awarded extensive contracts for the construction of various pipelines to transport oil for the military.
Besides providing oil in the U.S., Anderson also had contracts for similar services in Canada and South America. In 1955, he and his son, Maxie, got involved in uranium exploration and moved his base of operation to New Mexico.
While Maxie was still very young, his parents divorced, and he became interested in his father’s business dealings. He also became fascinated with airplanes, and two of his heroes were Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes. When Maxie was 8, his father enrolled him in the Missouri Military Academy (MMA), an all-boys boarding school in Mexico, Mo. Although he missed his father, he was excited about the school because an early graduate of the MMA was Howard Hughes Sr., father of the famous pilot, corporate giant and movie producer.
According to school records, Maxie was “an exemplary cadet who excelled in academics, athletics and military training.” At the age of 15, Maxie received his pilot’s license, and he graduated from the MMA in 1952.
From 1952 to 1956, Maxie attended UND. In 1955, he and his father acquired many leases in New Mexico, “including section 30, which proved to be the richest uranium section discovered at that time. It reportedly contained half a billion dollars’ worth of ore.” This find became the foundation of Ranchers Exploration and Development Corp. (REDC). Although he was only 20 years old, Maxie was appointed to the board of the company, and six years later, he was promoted CEO and president of REDC.
“Under his guidance, Maxie grew the company from a three-employee business... to one of the most forward-thinking businesses in the industry with more than 500 employees.” Eventually, REDC was grossing “over $50 million annually with large-scale investments in uranium, gold, silver and more.”
Much of the success of the company was due to Maxie’s innovative and creative approach to mining. On March 9, 1972, he had 2,000 tons of explosives packed into three levels of tunnels in the Old Reliable Mine near Mammoth, Ariz., and the explosives were then detonated. At the time, it was the largest non-nuclear blast created by man.
To extract the copper, Maxie employed electrowinning ,whereby the ore was soaked in an acidic solvent and an electric current was then passed through the solution, separating the copper from the inert debris. “This method revolutionized the mining industry and was adopted around the world.” In 1979, he received the “Copper Man of the Year” award for his contributions to the copper industry.
Maxie “was an avid Jules Verne fan” and one of his favorite novels was "Five Weeks in a Balloon." He soon realized that Albuquerque was the perfect place to take up the sport. On most days there were clear blue skies and the winds shifted at different altitudes, so that he could switch directions depending at what height he was flying his aircraft.
Once Maxie felt confident about piloting a balloon, he very quickly set a lofty goal patterned after one of his boyhood heroes, Charles Lindbergh: He wanted to fly a balloon across the Atlantic Ocean. Ben Abruzzo, an Albuquerque resident and businessman, was also a balloon enthusiast. Both men were aware that in 1927, Lindbergh landed in France as he completed his solo flight across the Atlantic. Both Maxie and Abruzzo believed that they needed to make their flight in 1977, marking the 50th anniversary of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight.
They engaged Ed Yost, “the inventor of the modern hot air balloon,” to build their balloon, the Double Eagle. The Double Eagle, with both Maxie and Abruzzo aboard, was launched near Marshfield, Mass., on September 9, 1977, but the flight was aborted four days later off the coast of Iceland.
In 1978, with a new balloon, Double Eagle II, and another crew member, Larry Newman, Maxie and Abruzzo launched their flight from Presque Isle, Maine, on Aug. 11. They arrived at Miserey, France, on Aug. 17, setting a distance record of 3,108 miles and a duration record of 137 hours. For their accomplishments, the team members were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1979.
On May 8, 1980, Maxie and his son Kristian made the first nonstop trans-North American balloon flight aboard the Kitty Hawk, departing from Fort Baker, Calif., and landing at Sainte-Felicite, Quebec, on May 12.
On June 27, 1983, Maxie and his co-pilot Don Ida were killed in a fall from their balloon because the explosive bolts on their gondola malfunctioned.
Maxie Anderson was inducted into the National Mining Hall of Fame in 1994 and the United States Ballooning Hall of Fame in 2011. Maxie and his teammate were also honored when the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum was opened on Oct. 1, 2006.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.