Reflecting on October 21st, 2023, I celebrated the 50th anniversary of my inaugural hot air balloon flight—a pivotal moment in my life that set the stage for a lifelong adventure and a dedicated vocation. Back in 1970s, as a wide-eyed 13-year-old teenager, little did I anticipate that hot air ballooning would evolve into the defining experience of my existence, allowing me the privilege of introducing nearly 60,000 passengers to the wonders of this benevolent form of air travel.
While the origins of hot air ballooning can be traced back to the Montgolfiere brothers’ smoke-filled manned balloons in 1783, it wasn’t until 1960, coincidentally the year of my birth, that the ‘modern day’ hot air balloon emerged and took flight in Nebraska. The visionary Ed Yost, a pioneer in the late 1950s, revitalized manned hot air ballooning. Departing from the conventional method of heating the air on the ground or through an on-board fire, Yost ingeniously designed burners fueled by bottled propane, enabling balloons to carry their own fuel and facilitating longer flights. Yost marked this groundbreaking shift with the first modern hot air balloon flight on October 22, 1960, soaring over Bruning, Nebraska, for an impressive one hour and 35 minutes.
My personal journey with hot air ballooning began in 1970 when I was introduced to a tethered balloon at the opening of the Genesee Valley Center shopping mall in Flint, Michigan—my hometown. Intrigued by this marvelous aircraft, my father and I eventually embarked on a free flight balloon ride, each in separate balloons piloted by Bruce and Tucker Comstock. The Comstocks, founders of Cameron Balloons US, licensed to manufacture British-designed balloons by Scotsman Don Cameron, played a significant role in our ballooning adventures. On October 21st, 1973 launching a a multi colored balloon named ‘Gypsy’ from Hudson Mills Metropark in Michigan, we enjoyed breathtaking views of Peach Mountain and its radio telescope, soaring over a landscape shaped by a glacier’s passage many years ago. It was truly unforgettable. There was dense, very low hanging ground fog and I questioned if we would see anything after we took off, but the fog was only 100′ thick and while the basket lifted, I began to see exposed tree tops while the surrounding fog dissipated after 20 minutes. It was as magical then as flying balloons is for me today.
The 1970s marked a significant turning point for ballooning, evolving into a popular sport accessible to enthusiasts of all backgrounds. Balloon manufacturers flooded the market with diverse basket and envelope designs, adorned with vibrant color schemes. Balloon landings were met with instant gatherings of spectators, turning pilots into local celebrities. We even adopted iconic pilot names like “The Phlying Dutchman” for my immigrant father, “The Phlying Scott” for myself, and others like Captain Phogg – The First World Balloon Champion, Captain Phairweather, and ‘Major Disaster,’ whose ill-fated flight in his ‘Titanic’ balloon ended tragically. He suffered a fatal heart attack moments after take off and yet had the wherewithal to turn off the fuel supply ..so the balloon landed itself, basket ending up on a porch of a nearby house with the fabric deflating and covering the roof.
Eager to formalize my passion, I obtained my commercial Balloon Pilot Rating at the age of 18, becoming a licensed ‘Pilot in Command.’ At the time, I was informed that I might be the youngest balloon pilot in the country—a rarity in those days. Over the subsequent decades, ballooning gained momentum, with an estimated 3000 registered balloons and 5000 to 6000 LTA (Lighter than Air) pilots in the United States alone. While not all are active participants, the ballooning community has expanded, embracing enthusiasts from various walks of life.
Nostalgically, the balloon pilots that I started with in the seventies have long since ended their ballooning careers. Since I began when I was so very young and I continue flying today, as probably the only remaining member of that first generation of ballooning pioneers… maybe I should be renamed “The Last of the First Balloonatics” ~ My loving wife Christine simply calls me her “Balloon Guy in the Sky”