Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a hot air balloon pilot? It’s a niche job filled with wonder, physics and a whole lot of beauty. While at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, we interviewed our very own La Mesa RV sponsored pilot Barney Watson, to learn about the intricate details of ballooning! Check out the interview video below to learn all about his balloon, Cool Beans II, how he got into the hobby and where it has taken him! Enjoy the full interview below.
Hi Barney! Thank you for chatting with us! Tell us a little about yourself.
Barney Watson: I am originally from Canton, NY. I graduated from high school in 1971 and from SUNY Potsdam in 1975. I came to New Mexico in the fall of 1975 to work for the US Army in operations research of their combat systems at White Sands Missile Range. I retired in May 2010 in order to work as an EMT at the ski area and racetrack in Ruidoso, New Mexico.
What got you interested in hot air ballooning?
BW: I became interested in hot air ballooning in 1989. I dated a girl who had a hot air balloon and she needed help flying, so I got into the sport with her for several years. A few years after I got out of it, I met another lady who wanted to learn how to fly the balloon she had so I helped her with crewing and training. We started dating and then she got her commercial licenses and taught me how to fly! In 2000 I became certified as a private LTA pilot and in the following year received my commercial LTA certificate.
How many years have you been flying the fiesta?
BW: I began flying the fiesta in 2001, making this year my 18th year!
Is hot air ballooning difficult? How much training do you need?
BW: Flying a hot air balloon is not like normal flying. There is no engine. Hot air ballooning requires the knowledge of the atmosphere so you know how to maneuver the balloon based off different wind directions and altitudes. You’re flying by the seat of your pants! When people ask how I control the balloon when flying I always say that I control the up and down and God controls the rest.
What conditions are best to fly in?
BW: For me, I like a little bit of wind in the air and no wind on the ground. That makes it so when you open the balloon it stays on the ground easily and without static. Ideal flying weather for me, is when there is some sort of directional change in the atmosphere. That way there’s a lot of steering on my end, which is really fun, and I can do a couple of hops (where we land and change up passengers).
What’s your favorite memory of piloting?
BW: (laughs) There are so many! One that sticks out to me happened three years ago. One of my friends had a crew member that was getting married, so we got four of our balloons together and we all took off from the same square. I followed my buddy who was proposing, we did a figure eight in the sky and landed back in the same square we launched from. Taking off and landing in the exact same spot is very rare and really a feat when you make it happen.
What’s one thing that most people don’t know about hot air balloons?
BW: They’re beautiful but there are some risks to flying them. It’s not just something you can pick up and do. It takes a lot of training. My balloon is 105,000 cubic feet. It has four tons of air inside it, so when I heat that up, we get a lot of lift. So when you move your balloon at even 10 miles per hour, there’s a lot of momentum there and they just don’t stop on a dime. If a person or other balloon is in the way, I can’t brake. We can take out things fairly easy so if you see a balloon coming your way, move away from the tracks so you don’t get knocked over.
What other festivals have you flown?
BW: So many! There are rally’s here all over the southwest like Elephant Butte (where we dip the balloon in the water), White Sands National Monument and Red Rocks State Park (we fly through the rocks and canyons). I flew in a rally outside Montreal at a nine day festival once as well. I really enjoy flying all over.
What are your top five tips to being a great pilot?
1. Crew – treat your crew right. I have 15 people out here for the fiesta and they’re all like family. If you treat your crew properly, you’ll have the best time in hot air ballooning.
2. Be knowledgeable about the weather.
3. You have to have some money. My balloon, brand new (10 years ago) was $40,000. That’s just the aircraft. You need a trailer, truck and a few other odds and ends just to get started.
4. Be in pretty good shape.
5. Have a great spirit to be adventurous and try new things!
Want to see more from the Balloon Fiesta? Check out our recent spotlight with two La Mesa RV employees where they share What They Learned During Their First Hot Air Balloon Festival.