Already a member? Please login below for an enhanced experience. Not a member? Join today

Hot air ballooning could be a hot ticket

Aviation enthusiasts considering their flying options might be interested to learn that hot air ballooning could be their ticket to the sky. At the world’s largest lighter-than-air event in Albuquerque, New Mexico, experienced balloonist Colin Graham was peppered with questions from a curious crowd that gathered around the basket of his specially shaped Bud E. Beaver balloon like moths to a candle. “What’s it like to fly?” “Do you need a license?” “Why haven’t you launched yet?”

Balloonists lift off from ride row with baskets that can hold between 10 and 12 paying passengers during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Oct. 8. Photo by David Tulis.

The 33-year-old repeated, “Awesome. Yes. Because the wind is too strong but we’re hoping for a green flag soon.”

Graham, who became a balloon pilot in high school, said the regulations for ballooning are similar to those for other aircraft where airspace and regulations are front and center, though earning a private pilot certificate in a lighter-than-air aircraft may take less time than earning one in a fixed-wing aircraft. An attractive difference for some aspiring balloonists is that a medical certificate is not required to exercise private pilot privileges in balloons. To earn a private pilot certificate with a balloon rating, applicants must log at least 10 hours of flight training, one solo flight (if learning in a balloon with an airborne heater), and pass a knowledge and practical test, according to Graham.

Ground crew members help inflate a balloon during the 45th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo by David Tulis.

One of the easiest ways to experience ballooning is to “attend a local hot air balloon festival, kind of check things out and see if you like it,” said Graham, as he inflated his traditionally shaped Wandering Endeavor balloon for an evening “Glowdeo.” Balloonists nearby blasted yellow flames into their aircraft in a symphony of sounds amid a kaleidoscope of color and shapes.

“Maybe take a flight with a local balloon ride operator, and from there you could join a crew” to experience different phases of flight, he said. “See what you think of it. Almost everybody starts as a crew member.” Graham told AOPA during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta that, “Very, very few [balloon pilots] went crewless” before attaining their certificate. His wife, Brittany, a sign language interpreter, joined her sister Ashley Schultz and friends Chris Schafer, Tony Overton, and five others to spread out the flight envelope, rig lines, and carry gear.

Balloonists at the festival warned that experiencing the feeling of pure flight in a lighter-than-air device can become addictive. “It’s almost like you’re standing still and the earth leaves you,” said Graham. He recently earned his commercial certificate in a fixed-wing aircraft but said he preferred the simplicity and peacefulness of ballooning compared to the vibrating cacophony of powered flight.

Spectators get close to balloons at a Special Shape Glowdeo where balloons are tied to static lines and light up the night sky during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Oct. 6. Photo by David Tulis.

Graham was drawn to the idea of flying hot air balloons after he experienced an up-close encounter with one. A balloon pilot softly floated to a landing near the family house in Georgia not far from Lawrenceville’s Gwinnett County Briscoe Field Airport when he was 8 years old.

“I learned how to pilot a balloon before I could drive a car,” said Graham, who is now a commercial balloon operator and has traveled the world with his balloons from Europe to Asia.

Thinking back to his routine as a student balloon pilot Graham said he soloed “a lot more than most people but that’s primarily because I didn’t have a regular instructor,” which, he explained, was not uncommon considering the relatively small number of balloonists compared to fixed-wing and rotorcraft pilots.


After finding his calling, Graham started a commercial balloon ride company at age 18 when the family moved to Virginia. He said flying in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains was challenging as he built up his skills, his confidence, and his knowledge of weather and the microclimates that were essential for safe flight. Balloons lack rudders and elevators, so pilots rely on air currents to steer the devices, climbing or descending to catch favorable wind direction that points them where they want to go.

The family-friendly environment was another draw for Graham and many balloonists at the Albuquerque rally. After flights they tailgated in fields and enjoyed an atmosphere that allowed crew members of all ages and experience levels to help pilots launch, track, and pack the balloons.

Pilot Colin Graham adds lift to his balloon during the 45th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Photo by David Tulis.

Floating silently along above the Rio Grande River, Graham said that smelling the aroma of baked goods, hearing horses whinnying from a pasture, and waving to people on the ground were the calling cards of balloonists the world over.

“There really are no words to describe it,” Graham said, as he punched a blast of hot air that lifted his balloon into the bright blue sky.

Montana balloonist Colin Graham's crew members wave while they trap hot air in the envelope behind them during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Oct. 8. Photo by David Tulis.
David Tulis

David Tulis

Content Producer
AOPA Media Content Producer David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings and a tailwheel endorsement. He is also a certificated remote pilot and co-host of the award-wining AOPA Hangar Talk podcast. David enjoys vintage aircraft ad photography.
Topics: Hot Air Balloon, Fly in, Training and Safety

Related Articles