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Non-Trivial Pursuits: Hot-Air Ballooning

Getting a license to fly a hot-air balloon takes time — but once you do, you may never stop soaring

Leslie Jeansonne, an entrepreneur based in Baton Rouge, La., started flying hot-air 23 years ago. Today, at age 61, she is as excited about the sport as she was when she took her first ride. Our writer talked to Jeansonne about her love of the activity, and what you need to know if you want to climb aboard.
Q. What drew you to hot-air ballooning? 
A. There’s something magical about balloons — they attract everyone, from young children to older adults. And when there are 30 or 40 in the air at an event, it’s breathtaking. So when the national balloon championship came to Baton Rouge in 1989, I was completely enthralled by it. A friend of mine was participating, and he needed some help. I joined his crew, and when he got his pilot certification, he asked me if I wanted to learn. I said I’d love to — and that’s where it started.
Q. What’s involved in the certification process? 
A. We are governed by the Federal Aviation Administration. To get a license, an individual has to fly for at least 10 hours with a certified instructor, including a solo flight, and pass a written and practical exam. Recertification by a certified instructor is required every two years, during which the instructor reviews the flight rules and flies in the balloon with the person to assess whether he or she is still competent to fly. Ballooning equipment also has to be certified and checked by a certified repair station every year or every 100 hours of flight time, whichever comes first.
Q. How did you come up with the name for your balloon? 
A. I named it “No Boundaries” because I associate the sport with allowing myself to do my own thing, without worrying what others think. When I first started hot-air ballooning, I was a mother with teenage children, and I was a little defensive about my choice. There were people who said, “Why in the world would you want to do this? It’s nuts.”  But I went ahead and did it. My husband was supportive, and although he recently passed away, I’m continuing to do it. I love the feeling of just floating through the air, which also ties into the “no boundary” feeling. It’s like moving through the air on a cloud.
Q. What happens in a balloon race? 
A. The events are called balloon races, but they’re really not — we’re not racing to see who gets somewhere first. There’s a “task master” who tells what the target is — for example,  a 20-foot X, in the middle of a field. We have to maneuver our balloons to get over the X and drop a beanbag. And the balloonist who gets closest to the center of the X wins. There’s a lot of skill involved. I’m not the best at it but it’s lots of fun. Although we’re competing, we’re all very excited when somebody gets to the center of the X, because it is a difficult thing to do. So there’s a real sense of camaraderie, and that’s what I enjoy most.
Q. Do you use some kind of navigation tool? 
A. We each put up a piball, which is short for “pilot indicator balloon,” before a flight. It’s actually a small helium balloon that provides visual cues about the direction and speed of a flight. We also use a compass because at different levels in the air, the air currents may change, and that affects steering. For example, the currents may go a bit more southerly at 100 feet, then a bit more to the east at 200 feet.
Where we start from is determined by the speed of the wind, and the taskmaster figures it out. If it’s windy, we’ll start perhaps as far as three miles from the target. Last October, when I raced in Natchez, Miss., the winds were extremely slow, meaning we might stay in one spot for five or 10 minutes. So we started a mile from the X for that race. On average, we’re usually flying for about an hour and 15 minutes, though when it’s really windy, we might be up for as little as 45 minutes.
Q. Do you take people up with you at events?
A. The fun thing is that most events have sponsors, and the event promoters give the sponsors a number of free balloon rides. So those of us who are competing usually take some people up. And what’s really kept me involved in hot-air ballooning for this long is that whenever I take up a passenger who has never been in a balloon before, I relive my first flight all over again. I see in their eyes what I saw the first time I ever went up — the magic of it. They’re just thrilled.
I’ll also take people up before or after a race. Last summer, I took up a young couple. The husband had given his wife a balloon ride as a birthday gift. She was 30 and had had a severe stroke two years before. She was very weak, and we accommodated her by putting a pillow on a small ice chest so she could sit back. She was one of my most favorite passengers ever because she was so inquisitive and energetic. She’d say, “Oh, my God, look how beautiful this is” and “Look at this, look at that.” It warms my heart to be able to give people this experience.”Q. What do you say to people who say No way because they have a fear of heights?

A. What I say to them is that if I get on a ladder or I had to climb on the roof of a house, I’d be jittery. And then I say, “Imagine yourself floating on a cloud!’ It’s just that peaceful. There is no sense of movement. Just the other day I had a passenger say to me, “I was really apprehensive but before I realized it we were off the ground and floating.

Q. Just last January a hot-air balloon crashed in New Zealand, killing the pilot and all 10 passengers. Is it really all that safe?

A. There are so many variables when dependence on weather conditions is part of the sport. Before I would get in a balloon, I would want to know what experience the pilot had. Even if the weather is clear, winds can get stronger at sunrise. There could have been an equipment malfunction. I would never presume to judge or make assumptions about what happened. As a pilot, all I can say is each flight is different, and the safety of my passengers and myself are uppermost in my mind before I decide to take a flight.

Q. How can someone learn more?


A. Ballooning is popular all over the country, but in the South we have the advantage of being able to fly almost year-round because our winters tend to be mild. California has a huge ride business, where flights go over wineries and other points of interest. Up north, most people pack their balloons away in August or September and can’t fly again, locally at least, until the spring. The quickest way to learn where the flights are is to Google “hot air balloon rides” in your area. And I’ll add that I’ve taken people of all ages up with me, from grandparents to very young children. There’s no age barrier to riding or flying, and that’s what I love about it, too.

Q. How much longer do you hope to fly?

A. As long as my health and ability allow me to.

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