Balloons light up the stage during the Aug. 7, 2018, Balloon Glow at the Sinclair Levy BoTown Entertainment Park in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Chris Heidelbauer was hooked on ballooning even before he first took to the air. The gamesmanship of being there for the pilot is what drew him. That and the camaraderie of being part of a team.
There’s a kind of adrenaline rush to chasing a balloon as a ground crew member. He’d track a balloon, calculating where it might land based on the direction and speed of the wind. Balloons usually fly for about an hour, but even that’s a guesstimate.
In 2 to 3 mph winds, a balloon takes a leisurely flight. That doesn’t necessarily make the ground crew’s job easy. They have to figure out where the balloon will land so they can assist the pilot in securing it to the ground, then deflating it and packing up the balloon and gear.
“You never actually know if she’s going to land in a particular place,” Heidelbauer said.
From left, Lisa Heidelbauer, 14, of Marion, her twin sister, Megan, Bill McClelland of Cedar Rapids and Tom Jedlicka of Marion put the burner in place while preparing to inflate the Buzzards Glory balloon during Balloon Glow on Aug. 7, 2018, at the Sinclair Levy BoTown Entertainment Park in Cedar Rapids (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
When Heidelbauer started to volunteer with a hot-air balloon crew, it was to occupy his two oldest children, Jessi and Ryan, then 7 and 4, while his pregnant wife, Michelle, was on bed rest in 2003.
The kids helped carry things for the crew and pulled out the colorful, lightweight balloon fabric as fans inflated it. Then, they’d watch the skies as Heidelbauer drove to meet the balloon at its landing.
“We spent the summer chasing balloons,” he said.
Heidelbauer had his first balloon flight while Michelle was in the hospital. The nurses wheeled her out so she could watch her husband fly over the city.
By then, his wife had been listening to his ground crew stories for months. After she was released from the hospital, Heidelbauer invited her — and 2-week-old twins Megan and Lisa — to be part of the ground crew. That first night out, Michelle Heidelbauer said to her husband, “Now I get it.”
“She had to experience it firsthand to put all the stories together,” he said.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2003, Chris Heidelbauer and their kids crewed for Peter O. Stamats and his wife, Susan, both experienced balloon pilots. Peter died later that year, but Susan continues to operate Buzzards Glory Hot Air Balloon Co. of Cedar Rapids, which her husband started in 1974.
The two families grew close and the entire Heidelbauer clan has been involved as ground crew members and balloon passengers.
“Ballooning is a family sport, and we have had a lot of families grow up with ballooning,” said Susan Stamats. “We find little jobs for the kids as soon as they’re able to carry things, like a bottle of water, so they feel a part of the crew. As they grow and mature, we give them more important roles.”
The No. 1 job of every crew is to focus on safety, Heidelbauer said.
Safety begins as the pilot and crew check the weather throughout the day. They send up a pilot balloon — or pi-ball — to test the wind near the ground and at higher levels. The wind’s direction determines where the balloon may land.
With safety in mind, 10 mph is a practical limit for keeping control of the balloon, he said. Other pilots can and do fly at higher wind speeds, but not the Buzzards Glory team. The weather can quickly change — and sometimes does after a balloon is in the air.
Sunrise and just before sunset, the winds tend to be mellower.
Every member of the crew understands they are empowered to speak up if they see something they think is wrong, Heidelbauer said.
“That way, we’re all taking care of each other,” he said.
Tom Jedlicka of Marion (left) and Carol Stockdale of Marion help with the deflation of a Buzzards Glory balloon before a rainstorm during Balloon Glow at the Sinclair Levy BoTown Entertainment Park in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Heidelbauer, now 51, at the urging of Susan, trained as a pilot and took his first solo flight in 2017. He became a licensed private balloon pilot in 2018 and is working toward his commercial license.
Ryan, the then 4-year-old who crewed with his dad in 2003, is training to become a pilot. The derecho sidelined his plans for a solo flight last year. The chances of that flight happening this year are looking good.
The Buzzards Glory pilots carry three propane tanks, and each balloon has double burners. Various instruments show altitude and how fast the balloon is climbing or falling.
The development of GPS has really changed ballooning, Heidelbauer said, proving useful to both the pilot and ground crew.
“GPS mapping is quite amazing. We can real-time track a flight,” Heidelbauer said.
Pilots can control only two things: going up or descending.
To rise, the pilot heats the air in the balloon with propane burners. To descend, the pilot can either let the air inside cool off naturally or open the top to vent the hot air.
Pilots can only steer left or right if they catch a wind current going in that direction. They do this by making the balloon descend or rise to explore which way and how fast the wind is blowing at different altitudes.
Heidelbauer said he can sense the subtle changes that come with the balloon adjusting to a wind current at a different altitude because he’s flown so much.
Heidelbauer flies Buzzards Glory, a colorful balloon with horizontal stripes that Peter Stamats had built. At 77,000 cubic feet of air capacity and about 70 feet tall when inflated, it’s in the midrange of Susan Stamats’ five active balloons. It flies with a pilot and one or two passengers.
The balloon itself is called an envelope. It’s made of ripstop nylon that’s similar in feel to a spring windbreaker. The larger the envelope, the more weight it can handle. However, it takes more fuel to operate. A large wicker basket holds the pilot and passengers.
Buying a balloon
Buying a balloon is like buying a car, Heidelbauer said.
You can buy new or used. A new balloon costs about $50,000, depending on its size and design.
Heidelbauer plans to own a balloon someday and creates colorful dream balloons using the 3D design tool on the Lindstrand Balloons USA site (lindstrand.com). That’s the Galena, Ill., company where Buzzards Glory balloons are inspected at least once a year.
Most of Heidelbauer’s flights have been over or near Cedar Rapids. He’s crewed for Susan Stamats in Michigan, Georgia, Nebraska, Ohio and Arkansas. He remembers vivid details of nearly every flight he’s made, particularly those with his wife and children.
“There’s something that makes every flight interesting or unique,” he said.
First-time passengers are surprised that they can’t feel the balloon moving. That’s because the balloon flies at the speed of the wind.
“Ballooning is really the ultimate experience of being part of the environment,” Heidelbauer said. “Ballooning is camaraderie — just seeing the level of energy, that’s what hooked me.”
Ian Boeding, 8, of Cedar Rapids, sits in the basket of a Buzzards Glory balloon and squints as it fires during Balloon Glow at the Sinclair Levy BoTown Entertainment Park in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
A hot-air balloon is simple in design. The envelope is the industry term for the air-filled fabric. The envelope is lightweight — about 195 pounds for a 77,000-cubic-foot, 70-foot-tall balloon.
The envelope is open at the top and bottom.
At the top, there is a hole called a parachute vent (parachute valve or deflation port). An attached cord allows the pilot to open the hole and release warm air.
The bottom of the envelope attaches at the fire-resistant skirt to the burners. The burners use propane to heat the air inside the envelope. The burner system is attached to the basket with a frame (metal or nylon).
The basket is made of sturdy but flexible wicker lashed together with leather. There’s a strong frame within the wicker, and the flooring is usually plywood. Propane tanks sit inside the basket, along with the pilot and any passengers.
People gather around an inflated balloon during Balloon Glow at the Sinclair Levy BoTown Entertainment Park in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Training happens on the ground and in the air. Prospective pilots must understand the basic principles of flight, be able to launch, operate and land a balloon; and make safe decisions.
Pilots are trained to avoid midair collisions and assess other risks. To fly solo, a person must be at least 14 and have been tested by a flight instructor.
For a private pilot certification/license, the person must be at least 16, pass a knowledge test, meet flight time requirements and pass a practical test. Private certification allows the pilot to fly alone or with passengers but not receive compensation.
Commercial pilots must be at least 18. Certified commercial pilots can choose to act as flight instructors. There are also flight training centers and FAA-approved flying schools.
To learn more, download the Balloon Flying Handbook.indb at faa.gov.
The Buzzards Glory Cost Cutters balloon is deflated to be packed away before a rainstorm during Balloon Glow at the Sinclair Levy BoTown Entertainment Park in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Flight dates and times cannot be guaranteed due to weather conditions. Passengers must be at least 12 years old.
Buzzards Glory Hot Air Balloon Company, Cedar Rapids
A hot-air balloon ride lasts about an hour, with an extra hour for launch, recovery, and returning to the launch site. Flights are scheduled for just after sunrise and about two hours before sunset.
Rides cost $500 whether for one or two passengers. Passengers must be at least 12 years old.
Tethering allows for numerous passengers to ascend and descend in one spot. Cost is $750 per hour. COVID precautions include limiting passengers to two.
Learn more at buzzardsgloryballoons.com or call 319-363-3842.
Indianola Iowa Hot Air Balloon Rides
Flights are 45 minutes to one hour; plan three hours for the total experience. There are two locations: Tequila SunFlying, Indianola, and Des Moines Serenity Ballooning, Des Moines.
Private balloon flights for two are $500 ($250 deposit). Flights include a champagne toast after the flight and commemorative champagne flutes.
Learn more at serenityballooning.com or call 515-537-4650.
The National Balloon Museum is in Indianola in central Iowa.
For many years, the city was home of the National Hot Air Balloon Championship. There is a full-size Iowa Balloon, a hot-air airship, a weather station, an exhibit on women balloonists and a Hall of Fame.
The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $5, with children under 12 free. Groups can schedule tours.
More information is available by calling (515) 961-3714 or online at nationalballoonmuseum.com.
Chris Heidelbauer of Marion takes to the skies in his Buzzards Glory hot-air balloon. He started chasing hot- air balloons as a ground crew member in 2003, loving the adrenalin rush, before taking his first solo flight in 2017. He is now a licensed pilot, and his son, Ryan, is working on getting a license this summer. (Photo by Susan Stamats)
Chris Heidelbauer works with crew members to inflate a Buzzards Glory hot-air balloon. (Photo by Susan Stamats)
Chris Heidelbauer of Marion checks the exterior of a hot-air balloon. It’s a sport that puts safety first. (Photo by Susan Stamats)