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The Real Wizards of Oz

By: Michelle Harper

Virginia ballooningVirginia is known for its natural beauty.  What a better way to explore it than from an aerial nature walk in a hot air balloon?  Recently, we met with a group of pilots who were passionate about this beautiful mode of transportation.  Their enthusiasm is apparent as they speak of the sensory delights of catching the scent of pine while passing over a dense forest, or of silently passing over a herd of grazing deer with the only sound being the whoosh of the burner keeping the balloon aloft. They all have different and exciting backgrounds, from operating a daredevil barnstorming business such as the Bealeton Flying Circus, to the prestigious job of being the Governor’s pilot; yet they all come back to this basic and historical mode of transportation that existed long before the Wright brothers ever made that initial winged flight in 1903 in North Carolina.  As balloon pilot Mark Nelson puts it, “Balloons are paintings in the sky.”  Therefore, not only are these pilots skilled aeronauts, they are each artists in their own right.

Virginia ballooningThis informal group of pilots (they are quick to point out that they are not a club, but a group of guys who enjoy flying and take it seriously) love to fly together.  They first met at the Bealeton Flying Circus Balloon Rally, the second oldest balloon rally in America, which has been going strong for almost 40 years.  Every year, during the third weekend in August, the public is invited to view the approximately 15 balloons attending and possibly enjoy a tethered or non-tethered ride.  Bealeton Flying Circus President, John King, says that it is a natural fit to include ballooning as part of the Flying Circus events.  Initially, he was not a balloon pilot, but he soon caught the bug and is now a certified FAA examiner for hot air balloon pilots. 

To ensure safety in the air, there are rigorous requirements to become a balloon pilot.  To obtain a license, pilots must obtain the appropriate amount of instruction, attend ground school, pass a written test, obtain the appropriate amount of flight instruction, complete check rides and obtain the requisite number of flight hours.  In addition, balloons must also pass safety inspections.  All of the pilots in this group have been flying since the 1970’s with thousands of hours of safe flight.  Part of the reason for this is the fact that they are continuously learning and improving their skills. 

During the off season, they train and review the practice of their craft.  In fact, we met up with this group during a weekend pilot safety seminar at the Williamsburg KOA.   All of this diligence has paid off nicely.  In fact, a review of the NTSB accident database indicates that there has been only 1 hot air balloon accident in the past 12 years in Virginia that resulted in an injury, and this accident did not involve any of the pilots in this group.  At the same time, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles lists a total of 111,386 automobile accidents in 2010 alone.  Given these statistics, you have a greater chance of having an accident driving to the balloon ride than while on your flight. 

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Photos courtesy of Mark Nelson

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