Tim Nelson is a professional hot air balloon pilot from the Sacramento area. He flew during this year’s Great Reno Balloon Race for Reno’s Integra Telecom. Moments before airing up his balloon on the fields of Rancho San Rafael park, here’s what he had to say.
How did you become a hot air balloon pilot?
I started with a 13-year career in hang gliders and paragliders. I owned a school in Southern California until the fires of 2003, which started at the bottom of my house. So I decided to put 13 years of weather and flying knowledge and soaring knowledge to use doing something different. So, balloons.
And now you have a full-time hot air balloon company.
I have a full-time balloon ride company based near Sacramento. It’s Skydrifters Ballooning. We’ve got a couple locations we fly to about 30 minutes east. We take a maximum of four passengers, and we’ve got two balloons we fly. It’s a good time.
What’s the weight limit?
It’ll change from balloon to balloon. Some balloons, the weight limit will be one or two passengers. Other balloons can take 20 or 30. It just depends on the size of the balloon and the size of the basket.
Historically, why do we have hot air balloons?
We have hot air balloons because man has been fascinated with flight from the time he saw the first bird. Back in the late 1700s, they started working on lighter-than-air ideas. The very first balloons were made pretty much out of paper and buttons and silk, and it was stoked and warmed with an open fire.
And people got in it?
They did! Some successfully and some not so successfully. They got in it just for a life experience. It was never transportation. Hot air balloons have never been for transportation; they’ve always been for fun.
That said, people have gone pretty far in hot air balloons.
Oh, they’ve gone around the world. Absolutely. Very specialized equipment, very big balloons, and definitely not your typical ride balloons.
What are the challenges of being a pilot of a hot air balloon?
Never knowing where you’re gonna land is the primary challenge. We have a pretty good idea of which way we should be going each day. But every time we take off, we do it with a nice deep breath and a lot of confidence that we can find someplace and use the winds above us to work ourselves to someplace that will get us to a retrievable landing spot. It’s part art, part science. That’s the adventure. If I always knew where I was going, we’d be taxi drivers.
For riders, is it dangerous?
A lot of it is going to come down to the pilot and the conditions they’re willing to fly in and the conditions the passengers are willing to fly in. Some folks, they want to go out on a very mellow, light air day and have nice stand-up landings with everything soft and comfy. Other folks want to do something a little more sporty, maybe go up really high, go with a bunch of wind. Typically, we try to avoid landings with passengers over about 12 miles an hour. Most folks don’t like it—a little abusive.
What does it take to be a good pilot?
Oh, my gosh. Lots of studying: weather, wind, safety procedures. Lots of flying and, most importantly, an attitude to get up and do it tomorrow.