SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. – What may appear, from a distance, to be a dragon belching the flame of a hundred blow torches is really an Air Force officer preparing for flight -- but not in a way you may expect.
Maj. Kenny Weiner is a transportation planner at U.S. Transportation Command and a C-17 instructor pilot in his day job, but on weekends and much of the other time he’s not at work, you can find him planning the next hot-air balloon flight.
“I am a fourth-generation balloon pilot -- note I did not say ‘hot-air’ balloon pilot,” Weiner said. “My great-grandfather flew gas balloons for Goodyear, helping to train future Navy blimp pilots. My mother and grandfather started flying hot-air balloons in Akron, Ohio, in 1982 when I was 4 or 5 years old. So I grew up around balloons.”
A Hobby Becomes a Family Business
What started as a hobby quickly became a family business when Weiner’s mother opened a balloon-ride operation in Medina, Ohio. Weiner said his father, a doctor, never was involved with ballooning.
“In 1993, my family purchased our first special-shape balloon,” Weiner said. “It was a snowman, designed after one of the four images on our balloon called Seasons. That balloon was purple with a snowman, daisy, pumpkin and sunshine on it. We went on to build one shape for each season: Mr. Winter, Ms. Autumn, Sunny Boy and Miss Daisy.
“We spent our summers traveling to various balloon events as the Seasons Hot Air Balloon Team,” Weiner continued. “We were lucky to have taken the balloons to some amazing places, including the Loire Valley in France, Germany, New Zealand, flights over the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara. We also had a ballooning business in Tampa, Florida, and we flew the Disney balloons.”
Weiner joined the Air Force in 2001, but that didn’t end his hobby. It was just transformed a bit.
“I stopped flying commercially and stopped flying special shapes,” Weiner said. “Since then, I continue to fly balloons as a hobby and family sport. My balloon is called Independence and is representative of the American flag. It is 90,000 cubic feet, which is average for balloons.”
Weiner said his two children are now part of the sport. “I hope they decide to become pilots,” he added. “My 5-year-old son, Evan, is already convinced he is my copilot.” His wife, Hanna, also is involved, and often acts as his crew chief.
Logistics of a Balloon Flight
A typical flight involves a bit more than inflating the balloon and taking off, Weiner said.
“When I decide to fly, I have to load the balloon into the bed of my pickup truck,” he explained. “My truck has a lift gate on the back, so the 500-pound basket and 250-pound [balloon] are easily loaded. I also have some [miscellaneous] equipment, [such as] a cooler with water and champagne.”
A flight also requires a chase crew, Weiner said, generally friends or family who help to set up and take down the balloon and chase it while he flies.
Weiner said the takeoff location is chosen based on wind direction. Because a balloon can’t be steered, planning requires awareness of the downwind direction and avoiding controlled airspace and restricted areas, he said.
“In the Midwest, we only fly early morning and late afternoon, when the winds are the lightest,” Weiner said. “I often take off from my neighborhood in O'Fallon [Illinois]. After inflating the balloon, I have my passengers -- two or three people -- climb in the basket, give a safety briefing, heat the balloon to equilibrium, do a last-minute safety check and, after a few more burns, we lift off.”
Suitable Landing Sites
The balloon moves with the wind, Weiner continued, adding that using different winds at different altitudes can serve to “steer” it. “After 30 to 45 minutes, I start looking for suitable landing sites,” he said. “In light winds, a balloon can be landed just about anywhere. An ideal spot is a clean, grassy field.”
Once a suitable landing site is located, gravity takes over.
“Most balloon landings are very gentle and require no help from ground crew,” Weiner said. “Occasionally in higher winds or in tight spots, the ground crew can help by catching a drop-line or catching the basket to add weight.
“Once down,” Weiner continued, “we deflate the balloon and let the wind push the balloon over with help from a line attached to the top of the balloon called the crown line. Pack-up takes 10 to 15 minutes.”
Out-of-pocket costs are between $100 and $200 per flight, Weiner said, but that doesn’t take into account the amortized costs, such as the cost of the balloon, balloon insurance, a suitable chase vehicle and the vehicle’s insurance.
A new complete balloon system costs $30,000 to $40,000, Weiner said. “Most people buy a used system for $10,000 or less for training,” he added. Baskets often are carried over to a new balloon envelope, saving $10,000 to $15,000, he added, and old balloons can be rebuilt with new fabric in worn-out areas to extend their life.
Many Interesting Experiences
Weiner said he has had many interesting experiences with passengers, including multiple marriage proposals. And in Europe, he said, people often run outside naked to wave. But he never has had a frightful flight.
“I have never been scared in a balloon,” he said. “And I would add people that are afraid of heights enjoy balloon flights more than anyone else. They are often repeat passengers. There is something distinctive and ‘unscary’ about a balloon flight. It is as if you stand on a platform and watch the Earth rotate beneath you.”