I won my first balloon ride as a sales contest, first prize in Del Mar, California. Liking the experience, I moved to Albuquerque New Mexico, known as the balloon capital of the world. There I learned to be chase crew. After a few years I decided to earn my private pilot’s license and certificate. Later I earned my commercial/instructor’s license and began to teach part time at the flight school all the while running my computer business.
While at the school, I received a telephone call from a commercial ride operator in Pennsylvania who asked if I would consider flying tours full time which I accepted. Since it was seasonal I often would return to Albuquerque and fly part time. After my last season in Pennsylvania, I received a call from a former flight school student who worked for a company in Canada and asked if I would be interested in being the Chief Pilot in Las Vegas, Nevada for their operations. I accepted figuring that I would spend the “off season” in Vegas and return to Pennsylvania when the weather got too hot. That was 3 years ago. Since then we started our own tour company specializing in premium hot air balloon tours.
I have written 3 books on my experiences while ballooning. “God Controls the Wind, I Control the Burner”, “What’s that Noise” (children’s book) and “It’s more than Hot Air.”
If you could only fly a visitor to one place in Las Vegas, where would you go?
The winds determine the direction we fly so each tour is different. I love to catch the winds to the southwest from our usual launch field. I attempt to go high first, to catch a great view of the Strip (we cannot fly over the restricted airspace of the Strip), Lake Mead and the Las Vegas Valley. Then if the winds cooperate I catch the northeast wind and play in the mountains where miners used to dig for silver (Nevada is the Silver State). There is a series of smaller mountains that remind me of a miniature Grand Canyon. Later I love “buzzing” the mountains which is fun and provides some great pictures.
We like to say. “You can take a ride anywhere but if you want an experience fly with us”. We are a smaller family owned and operated balloon tour company. Unlike the other operators in the area that fly the “cattle car” 12 passenger baskets, our largest balloon holds a maximum of 6 people. We have the only easy access ramp basket in Nevada and the maximum safety featured American made equipment.
We specialize in engagement, wedding, and private rides. Our post flight celebration and toast is the best in Vegas with each passenger leaving with included mementos. We do offer 2 passenger private rides in a traditional basket too.
In reading your website, being part of and contributing to the community seems to be important to you. Could you tell us more about how you and your team give back?
Vickie Smith (owner/manager) is very sensitive to those with mobility restrictions. While she was teaching a Healing Touch® class we had space to fly some students. One of the students had numerous leg joint replacements and was “challenged” by the four-foot wicker basket wall. Our professional flight crew was able to get her in and out but only with some embarrassment and frustration.
As a result, Vickie and Kevin began a quest to find a basket that would expand the experience to those with mobility restrictions. Also, they filed and were granted nonprofit status for Chariot of Fire Inc. With the nonprofit in place, the tour donates a portion of each flight’s profit to the nonprofit to provide life changing experiences to those who otherwise would never experience a hot air balloon flight.
What is the best part of your job?
I love to watch my passengers as they experience “flying without wings.”
I landed in a small commuter airport in the grass between the runway and the hangers. The airport manager drove out in his golf cart and said “You do realize this airport is only for aircraft” in which I replied ”I didn’t drive here” (all commercial balloons are certified and registered as aircraft).
Every job has its ups and downs. Are there any aspects of your job that you don’t like or aren’t that keen on?
Although hot air ballooning is still considered an extreme sport, it has many safety redundancies that make it a safe experience. Occasionally spectators call public safety stating that we are crashing or on fire when in fact we are landing. Therefore, I welcome opportunities to speak and share with civic clubs and homeowner associations to explain how balloons fly and land.
When you’re not busy guiding tours – what’s your favourite thing to do?
I enjoy traveling, seeing new places. I have been around the world twice.
Tell us something about ballooning that only someone in the industry would know.
Propane boils at -43F. Our burners project at least 14,000,000 BTU’s of heat 20 feet inside our balloons. Our primary balloon envelope has as many stitches as there are miles between the Earth and Moon (239,000)
In your view, what makes a good tour guide?
Professionalism, experience, safety, understanding of the experience, and having FUN!
And finally, have you got any tips for people who are interested in booking a ballooning tour, but aren’t too sure what to look for?
Decide what you want your experience to be, “a city bus tour or limo tour.” Talk to the owners, ask questions. On our website we have a page called “Know before you go.” Which has lots of answers to tips to ask.