To most people, riding in a hot air balloon is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But to others, flying them is a rewarding hobby.
We went to the Hudson Valley Hot Air Balloon Festival at Barton Orchards in New York to meet a few of the characters who call themselves “balloonists.” Their stories are just as interesting as you’d expect.
We hitched a ride with Carroll Teitsworth, a former Navy pilot who has flown balloons since 1978, to learn more.
“When I got into ballooning, there was no such thing as a training for your license,” Teitsworth told TODAY. “So I brought the concept of balloon-ground schools from the airplane world.”
Teitsworth has since taught hundreds of students how to pilot balloons, taking ballooning from a hobby to a career. Currently, his balloon is sponsored by Remax, who also pays for Teitsworth's appearances at festivals and for all of his flights.
While he’s passionate about educating people, his favorite memory of ballooning centers around his family.
“The thing that I’m most proud about is that the kids have all gotten involved in ballooning with me,” said Teitsworth. “I would’ve never known 20 years ago that that’s what I would be most proud of as I get older.”
Families getting into ballooning together seems to be somewhat of a trend in this community.
Ken Leota, the pilot of a balloon shaped like a tuxedo called “Sir Prize," has even taken flight with three generations of women in his family at once.
“Last year, I flew my granddaughter, her mom and my wife on a flight,” Leota told TODAY. “It was just a spectacular flight with the three most important women in my life. It was perfect.”
Leota got involved in ballooning after a friend purchased a balloon on a whim.
“A friend of mine from high school got me started [in ballooning],” said Leota. “He went to college and came back to visit with a hot air balloon. I thought he was nuts … but I had my own within two years.”
Leota is also fond of the saying, “The first time you try it, it’s free. The next time it’ll cost you $25,000.”
The average person pays around $20,000 for a used balloon — and up to $50,000 or more for a brand-new balloon.
They make money attending festivals and charging patrons for the experience. (At the Hudson Valley festival, a ride costs $250.) Balloonists' salaries vary based on their sponsorship, levels of participation in festivals and the number of patrons paying for rides during festivals.
Balloons can also be customized or turned into characters. Peter Griswold is one pilot who chose to do just that. Griswold’s balloon is “Pokey the Flying Turtle.”
“My kids wanted a pet and this is what they got,” Griswold told TODAY. “They got a hot air balloon turtle.”
“I got into hot air ballooning through my father,” said Griswold of his dad, who was also a balloonist. "It wasn’t a question of if I was going to fly a balloon, it was just when.”
“Ballooning means everything to me,” said Griswold. “It’s a passion, it’s a hobby, it’s a family legacy.”