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Lessons Learned from up in the Air: What It’s Like to Fly in a Hot Air Balloon with a World-Famous Pilot

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Lessons learned from up in the air

I thought an alarm clock cutting through the silence at 4:30 a.m. was the worst sound in the world until I realized the adventure that was awaiting me if I could just get out of bed. I was in Albuquerque, ready to take to the sky in one of the world’s most famous hot air balloon destinations.

My group drove in utter darkness to the Rainbow Ryders main office. The slogan “Bucket List? Check” was plastered everywhere, and I quickly learned that if flying in a hot air balloon is on your bucket list, this is the place to do it. With near perfect wind and visibility conditions year-round, you’re likely to get a good day to fly no matter what time of year you visit Albuquerque. But if there’s a perfect month for hot air ballooning, it’s October, the month of the International Balloon Fiesta.

Flying in a Hot Air Balloon: Meet Your Pilot

The amount of prep work, time, science, and knowledge that goes into launching even just one balloon—never mind the dozens of simultaneous launches that take tourists up in Albuquerque every day—is unthinkable until you see it in person. Even just rolling out the balloon requires at least five people.

And while the support crew plays a vital role in the launch and landing of these balloons, when you’re in the air, the pilot is the star of the show. My pilot was Troy Bradley, who introduced himself as a guy who had been flying balloons for most of his life. But it didn’t take long before someone offered the full story: Troy wasn’t just a balloon pilot, he was certified ballooning royalty.

Troy has flown over both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in a hot air balloon. He holds 64 world records and is pretty much the most famous person in Albuquerque (now that Breaking Bad has wrapped). The International Balloon Museum is filled with exhibits about him—you can see baskets he’s crossed oceans in and objects representing other record-setting projects. Troy was even recruited by National Geographic TV to recreate the house balloon from the movie Up for an episode of How Hard Can It Be?

Maybe it’s the effortless floating or the perspective from above, but there’s something about being in a hot air balloon that inspires reflection. A hot air balloon ride with Troy is like taking an accidental master class in living a better life. Here are five life lessons inspired by ballooning.


Five Lessons Learned from Flying in a Hot Air Balloon

1. You can only control your vertical movement; the wind controls how you move horizontally.

Up in the air, as in life, there’s a lot you can’t control. But by shifting perspective, you can embrace a smoother ride and catch the winds that will push you in the right direction.

2. Loving what you do is all that matters.

Troy is the definition of passion. Waking up at 4:00 a.m., rolling out massive tarps, getting dripped on by propane, and directing his team of other airborne pilots via walkie-talkie from a balloon can’t be easy, but Troy does it every day. He clearly doesn’t consider it “work,” and his passion has been passed on to his two children, who each hold their own world records.

At the museum, you can see some of the gear it takes to survive a transcontinental hot air balloon flight: dozens of helium tanks, a floating metal capsule, and pounds of equipment. But this sampling represents only a glimpse of the time, logistics, research, money, and effort that goes into such endeavors, and Troy has dived headfirst into these projects dozens of times.

3. Anything is possible.

You know what should be impossible? Hovering hundreds of feet in the air and then skimming the Rio Grande in a giant floating basket. To go beyond that and to pilot a balloon across thousands of miles of water, contained for six days, is to merge big dreams with serious logistics, and to prove that nearly anything is possible if you have the imagination to dream it and resources to make it happen.

4. Experience things for yourself.

If you follow any travel accounts on Instagram, you’re bound to come across glamorous shots of balloons in Cappadocia or balloon baskets floating over a river in France. What isn’t pictured, though, is the propane dripping on you from above, the 4:00 a.m. wake-ups, and the constant sound of dogs barking (the high-pitched noise they hear from propane tanks bothers them). In no way did these realities lessen my experience, but it was a good reminder that an Instagram photo doesn’t always give the full picture.

5. Don’t take yourself too seriously … and have a drink.

Troy has plenty to brag about (if you held 64 world records, it might come up in conversation now and again), but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He does, however, know that every balloon ride should end with festivity and joy—and a traditional Champagne toast. Around the world, each of his safe balloon landings ends with this salute:

“The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warm hands. You have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in laughter and may set you gently back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”


Feeling inspired? Troy recommends these other locations for hot air ballooning:

  • Saga, Japan
  • Leon, Mexico
  • Cappadocia, Turkey
  • Chateau-d’Oex, Switzerland
  • Pikes Peak Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • Gallup, New Mexico

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SmarterTravel Editor Ashley Rossi traveled to Albuquerque courtesy of Visit Albuquerque. Follow her adventures (big and small) on Twitter and Instagram.

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