Wild West Balloon Adventures owners Bud Whitehead and his wife Stacia let life take them where the wind blows.
Not knowing where the wind will take you is only part of what Bud Whitehead loves about being a hot air balloon pilot.
Whitehead and his wife Stacia acquired Wild West Ballooning in January of this year. He’s thrilled to carry on a tradition of hot air ballooning that has existed in Steamboat for over 40 years, always wildly celebrated in typical ski town style. “You used to be able to bungee jump from hot air balloons,” Whitehead says. “They once had a balloon race with a cross country skier and the goal was for the pilot to land the skier as close to the finish line as possible.” Hot air ballooning itself dates back to 1783 when a chicken, duck, and sheep were sent on an experimental flight over Paris before Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis D’Arandres became the first men to attempt that first aerial journey.
Whitehead isn’t planning on flying with chickens or offering bungee jumping anytime soon, but if you’ve ever wondered how in the world they fly those things, Whitehead can tell you all about it, and how floating above the Yampa Valley literally changed his perspective on life.
How did you first get involved with hot air ballooning?
When I first started working for Wild West Ballooning, I was on chase crew, following the balloon on the ground in a chase vehicle to assist with landing, help pack the balloon up, and shuttle passengers. Then Ian took me up on my first flight and it was amazing to see the valley from above. You get this whole new perspective. It was a tremendous feeling; how peaceful and quiet it is up when you get into the sky. It really took me by surprise, how much I enjoyed that first flight.
What does it take to become a pilot?
Ian approached me one day and asked me if I had ever thought about flying the balloon. I hadn’t really thought about it, but I’m always open to something new and exciting, so I agreed to give it a try and he became my flight instructor. You start off with student pilot certification, then you get signed off to fly solo so you can get your private pilot’s license. Once you have that, you go for your commercial pilot’s license so you can start flying paying clients. But even after getting the commercial pilot’s license, you still have to get more hours to get insured. At each stage you log a certain number of flight hours, take a written test, pass a flight test and an oral test. It took me about 3 years from the start of my training, to get my commercial pilot’s license.
What are some of the things about flying that people don’t know?
There’s nothing on the balloon that allows you to steer. All of the steering is with the wind and wind currents. We’ll ascend and descend and look for different winds going in different directions to help us steer to a nice landing site, and I have a few different ropes and pulleys in the balloon, but none of those things make us go left or right, or faster or slower. It’s all the wind.
Woah, that’s crazy!
Yes, you can definitely get blown off course sometimes or end up going in a direction you don’t want. You might see us landing in someone’s backyard, which is not something we want to do, but sometimes the winds will shift on you. Then it’s all about trying to get to a safe and legal landing spot. You may be in an area you didn’t plan on, but you’re just trying to put it down somewhere safe and open. You can end up in some unique situations, that’s for sure.
How much do hot air balloons cost?
The balloon we fly is around $100,000 new.
Is it dangerous?
As far as danger and safety, you want to make sure you do your diligence on weather forecasting and make sure you keep your balloon on the ground if the winds pick up or there are storms coming. It’s just like sailing; you don’t want to take a sailboat out as storm is approaching, and you keep the balloon on the ground if the weather isn’t going to be right. We won’t go up if it isn’t safe, so we mitigate most of the dangers that you might think are associated with ballooning through research and preparation.
What do you love about it?
I love that every day is different, that you don’t know where you’re going to end up when you start. There is no auto pilot or cruise control. You don’t have a flight plan. You work with the winds you get that day and use them to your advantage. I love that it’s always a challenge. Another thing I really enjoy is sharing special moments with people. People often choose to go up when they’re celebrating a special moment in their lives, so we get to be a part of that. I also enjoy spending time with my crew. We’re a big happy family. I also get to work with my wife so that’s a lot of fun. We’re expecting our first baby girl in September. I’m sure our little daughter will be spending a lot of time at our launch field.
What is special about flying in the Yampa Valley?
I love seeing the seasons change from the balloon, how it greens up in spring and summer. You can see how the river is flowing and watch the ranchers cutting their hay. Then you start getting into fall and see the leaves change. The autumn flights are so beautiful, with the yellows and oranges and seeing the peaks get some snow on them. it’s even quieter in winter with snow on the ground muffling all the noise of town. Sometimes you’ll have some snow crystals in the sky and the sun hitting those crystals looks like sparkling glitter all around you – it’s like being in a snow globe. There’s just nothing else quite like it.
Reproduced with permission from SteamboatSIR.com