The Story of a... Hot Air Balloon Pilot

For Jeff Thompson, 53, owner of Thompson Aire near Kissimmee, it’s always time to rise and shine.

Nathan Dobbins

Thompson’s interest in hot air balloons started when he was just 13, after his father took him to see the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championships in Indianola, Iowa. “I went home and started building model balloons out of tissue paper and cellophane tape. Once, I built a 17-foot tall tissue paper hot air balloon and used it to fly my bike.”

“At 15 years old I started flight training; at 16, I got my pilot license; and at 17, I launched my first hot air balloon. By the time I was 18, I was ranked as one of the top five pilots in the U.S.’’

“I believe in flying smaller and more personal balloons, so we don’t fly more than six to eight passengers. This will be one of the top ten things you’ll do in your life. It’s just that amazing.”

Thompson says he witnesses at least two marriage proposals per month in the gondola. “We have a program for proposals. We take off with ‘malfunctioning’ radios and our ground team desperately trying to ‘tell us’ something. The guy knows what’s coming but the girl has no clue. We position the ground crew out on a field and they come out with a banner that says ‘Will you marry me?’’ The deer-in-the-headlights look on her face never gets old.”

Flying 101: “By heating the air in the balloon, the air becomes less dense, the molecules spread apart, and that gives us lift. So if you add just the right amount of heat the balloon will become buoyant and float. If you add a little more heat than it needs, it’ll start climbing and if you do nothing, it’ll fall.’’

“We fly in the early morning because that’s when it’s the calmest. Here in Central Florida we have about 100 days out of the year where the weather isn’t suitable. Three things that’ll stop us are high wind, poor visibility and rain.”

“Imagine driving your car with no brakes, no control over the speed, and a 20-second delay on your steering wheel. Now imagine trying to hit your driveway—that’s what flying a balloon is. It takes a great deal of practice. You have to know your weather better than a meteorologist.”

“My niece and my nephew have been around balloons since they were newborns. Every time we fly we launch small helium balloons because that tells us what the wind layers are doing. So we went to a T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant one night, and the waiter brought them balloons. They went out to the parking lot and let those balloons go, then came back in, looked at my father and said ‘Grandpa, the wind’s going south.’ ”

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