In the unpredictable world of hot air ballooning, you must stay alert to stay afloat.
Pilot Skip Howes, of Colorado Springs, says that’s part of the appeal.
He has been flying for more than 25 years and was in Snowmass Village on Friday with his balloon, called “Wildfire”, for the annual Snowmass Balloon Festival.
“It’s quiet, it’s relaxing, but at the same time stimulating when you’re traveling by plane,” he says. “You have to be on your game and all that, but it’s another kind of stress or another kind of adrenaline rush, maybe. I don’t know, it’s just a bullet.
Again, you might have to be a little crazy to get into a wicker basket to begin with.
Cheerful self-mockery might be a prerequisite for balloonists. Pilots with decades of experience like to joke about how little they knew when they started.
Mark Whiting, a Denver-based pilot, was flying over the softball field Friday morning in a circus-themed balloon called “Big Top.”
He became addicted to hot air in the late 1970s.
He was working for Remax, the international real estate company known for its hot air balloon logo, when the first real Remax balloon arrived.
“They came in and they were probably going, ‘Balloons here, balloons here,'” Whiting says. “And I went, ‘Away! What’s a balloon?’
He decided to go help the crew – in an off-white three-piece suit and expensive shoes, no less.
“We’re in a little field that’s muddier than all the mud, … and I’ve got mud up to here,” Whiting said, pointing to the top of his thigh. There were also splatters on his jacket; the jacket was spared as he took it off before going to work.
“The pilot looked at me when we all said and finished, and he said, ‘You know, you’re just dumb enough to be a pilot. ‘” Whiting said. “Of course I’m here.”
Doug Lenberg was hanging out with Howes and Whiting and the rest of the talkative “Big Top” crew on Friday morning. He says tequila got him into the game in 1986.
“I was partying with a good friend of mine, and I had a little too much tequila in me, and he said, ‘Do you want to help me ride a flying pink pig?'” Lenberg says. “And I said, ‘What? Okay, I’ll do it.'”
So he helped build a balloon in the shape of a piggy bank, for the United New Mexico Bank.
He then moved from special shapes to ordinary balloons and flew for years before turning to event organizing and serving as a “balloon master” at festivals.
Long after the tequila wore off, the lure of the hot air balloon remained fresh.
Lenberg has remained in the business for more than three decades, through a mid-flight heart attack in 2014 and through the recent and sudden death of his wife, Sylvia.
He stays on the pitch these days, but he hasn’t strayed away from the people he says are probably the friendliest community in the world.
“You go out and walk around the basket, talk to the drivers, talk to the crews and you’ll be welcome,” says Lenberg. “We have no strangers in our community and we take care of each other.
“They’ve all been there for me after my wife passed away recently, all of a sudden the whole community has been there for me, all over the country,” he added.
Whiting believes you can go anywhere on earth and befriend other hot air balloon enthusiasts.
“I think it’s because of the magic that makes children smile, and there are children in all of us,” he says. “I don’t care how old you are. There’s a kid in there somewhere.
Again, a little champagne might also help.
It is customary for balloonists to have two bottles of champagne on board: one for the pilot and crew, and one for the owner, where the ship lands.
Whiting says it’s a winning combination with the fuel used to keep the ball in the air.
“Breakfast of champions, champagne and propane,” he laughed.