By Bryce Dix and Isaac Fason / NM News Port
Because of hot air balloon clubs like Top Gun, which aim to get people into piloting balloons rather than just marveling at them, there’s plenty of action beyond the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Top Gun Vice President Will Fitzpatrick, speaking at a recent competition, said that spreading awareness of the competition is the first step in getting more people into the hobby.
“Ballooning is a little slow and we are obviously not going to be doing fast, Nascar stuff,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s all about the precision flying.”
Top Gun, named after a popular film about an elite group of pilots, has more than 60 members, which according to the group makes it the largest competition ballooning club in the world.
Fitzpatrick admitted that balloons aren’t at the top of the list when sporting competition comes to mind.
“Everybody knows the rules of football… and their favorite races… but if we don’t talk about the rules of competition ballooning, then nobody knows it actually exists,” Fitzpatrick said.
In these events, pilots are tasked with flying to a precise local area, then throwing bean-bags at targets on the ground, marked with a big white letter X. Scoring is based on how close to the targets the bean-bags land.
Other competitions skip the targets but require pilots to follow random but predeterminedGPS coordinates.
For these contests, scoring is also determined by navigating a balloon as close as possible to given coordinates. If the weather is not cooperating, everyone is given the same amount of points for participating in the event, or scored on how close they get to the targets, even if the pilots didn’t throw a bean bag.
Balloonists want to win for the bragging rights. But Chris Cliver, a pilot from Lewisville, Texas, said these events are more about improving his piloting skills.
“Competition is a great way to become a safer flier,” he said. “ It’s learning how to put the balloon where you want it to go, rather than floating along and hoping to get a landing spot.”
Cliver has been piloting balloons for five years alongside his father. He has scored so well in Top Gun events, he was named the club’s pilot of the year — the first person not from New Mexico to get the title.
Cliver is one of the younger pilots, and said he has been seeing the sport change recently.
“We are getting more young guys that see what we are doing and find it cool,” Cliver said. “We are finally seeing a new generation of pilots taking over again, which is refreshing to see.”
Top Gun Ballooning was established in 1984 as a non-profit organization that heavily focused on ballooning education and safety. Pilots can join the Albuquerque-based group, who charge a $50 annual membership fee Anyone else who wants to be regularly involved can join as affiliate members for $5. Those without a background in ballooning can get experience working as crew, taking photos, or just having fun.
The Balloon Federation of America oversees Top Gun Ballooning and other major ballooning groups in the United States. It has grown to represent over 70 clubs and include 3,500 balloon pilots and crew since its inception in 1961.
Competition ballooning clubs allow just about anyone to participate in their events, and volunteers are essential for scoring, event management, and balloon chase crews. Without a team to get the pilot up in the air, these events wouldn’t exist.
Tom Konerth is not a member at Top Gun, but he has been volunteering his time at the Balloon Fiesta and other ballooning special events for over five years. He said he wants to be involved in any way he can.
“I’m not interested in purchasing a balloon,” Konerth said. “But It’s fun to crew, hang out and occasionally get rides.”
Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta is among the top tourist draws in the state, producing almost $180 million in economic impact, so it’s somewhat of an entrepreneurial opportunity for Will Fitzpatrick to tout the benefits of ballooning.
“Yeah it’s a fun competition, but really it is a great place for us to be able to learn and to foster the next generation of balloonists,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick invites those in the Albuquerque area interested in ballooning to get involved with Top Gun.
“We take off almost every weekend. If you just come out and ask the question, ‘Hey, can I help?’ We usually let strangers help us all the time. It’s really nice to be able to have an aspect of aviation that is so embedded in the community,” Fitzpatrick said.
Top Gun’s next event will be at the end of December.
Bryce Dix is a reporter for the NM News Port. He can be contacted @brycemdix on Twitter or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Isaac Fason is a reporter for the NM News Port. He can be contacted @izfason on Twitter or at email@example.com