“I knew I wanted to fly, and balloons were the cheapest way to get off the ground,” says the 60-year-old, Idaho-based pilot. "But the first time I fired it up, I ended up burning up 40 acres of wheat in my dad’s field. That kept me grounded for awhile.”
But the desire to take to the skies never subsided: Spencer helped execute his first successful flight two years later and dedicated himself to gaining both the experience and education necessary to obtain a commercial pilot’s license after graduating from college.
Now, with 44 years of flying experience under his belt, Spencer heads up the official Coca-Cola Ballooning team, which comprises three different Coca-Cola-branded balloons: two traditional-shaped balloons and one shaped like a giant Coke bottle that, at 185 feet high, is the world’s tallest hot-air balloon.
Spencer considers himself an “aerial ambassador” for the brand, saying that experience and intuition are his copilots. “People assume you need to drop a sandbag if you want to gain height, but it’s more like you drop spoonfuls of sand at a time” to reach your desired altitude. A good pilot delicately calibrates the temperature of the balloon’s burners one degree at a time in order to syncopate with the craft’s “blast rhythm”—the up and down motion of flight, which varies with the size and shape of the balloon as well as with the weather conditions.
Operating Your Own Balloon
Becoming a balloon pilot is not for the half-hearted: In addition to obtaining an FAA-regulated license—which requires a minimum of 10 hours in the air and 10 successfully executed flights as well as passing a written test that covers flight regulations for every kind of aircraft, from helicopters to jets—the equipment alone requires a significant investment of money, muscle and storage space.
The average hot-air balloon tends to run in the $30,000 to $50,000 range and weigh about 500 to 600 pounds, according to Albuquerque-based instructor Al Lowenstein, who’s been teaching people how to fly balloons for 16 years. In order to haul all that equipment around, he points out, you need both a substantial vehicle and a physically fit ground crew. Upkeep costs include fuel (flights are powered by large propane tanks), storage fees, annual inspection and maintenance, finding and feeding your crew—“and, of course, Champagne,” notes Lowenstein.
A Rising Interest
Ballooning is also a growing spectator sport—particularly in the western United States, where weather conditions and geography are optimal. In Longview, Texas, the Great Texas Balloon Race draws competitive balloonists for what is widely considered to be the world’s premier balloon-racing event every summer. In New Mexico, hundreds of balloonists and thousands of spectators descend upon the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta each October, where passengers can test out their comfort level in a tethered balloon before taking to the skies in flight.
Lowenstein says that that even people who claim to have a fear of heights tend to feel secure inside a balloon’s standard four-foot-high basket. “It’s not so much a fear of heights that we have as it is a fear of edges,” the veteran instructor laughs.
And each year, during first weekend in November, the skies of Arizona become a mosaic of color during the Page Lake Powell Balloon Regatta. To kick off the four-day event, pilots volunteer to teach local students about the science of
Many future pilots get their start at these events by volunteering to crew for a pilot—helping unfurl the balloon “envelope” (the nylon balloon part of the craft), hauling the equipment, and driving the “chase car,” which follows the path of the balloon in flight and meets it once it’s on the ground again. It’s a better way to get off the ground, notes Spencer, than trying to sneak a balloon into your daddy’s wheat fields. Still, the lifelong aviator looks back at his early years of flying fondly.
“Ballooning has always had an air of quiet reservation. It was fun to be part of this sport at the start of its popularity, before everyone knew about it.” It remains, he notes, an awe-inspiring and humbling experience: “I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I’ve spent my career watching people be amazed at the perspective they have access to in a basket floating across the sky. To be able to share that feeling of exhilaration with people? It’s the best.”
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