What do you get when you combine the most snow in Colorado with chance job offers and a spirit for adventure?
In this Pagosa Springs story, you end up with two commercial balloonists who stumbled into a career of hot air at high altitude.
In 1981, Mike Marchand was living in Durango. He had moved to the area because he was a “big time skier” and enjoyed the mountain living. Soon, though, he was enticed east to Pagosa Springs.
“Pagosa had earlier openings for skiing and had the most snow,” Mike recalls. In the early ’80s, there was one stoplight in Pagosa Springs, located downtown at the Hot Springs Boulevard intersection. The uptown area, that is now a bustling shopping community, consisted then of a few hundred houses, a new nine hole golf course and a Fairfield resort that would eventually become the Pagosa Lodge and Wyndham timeshares.
Mike ended up working at the lodge and would hear many complaints from visitors that there was nothing to do once they got here. The lodge responded by bringing in a hot air balloon pilot from Arizona to offer scenic flights. Mike worked with that pilot for several years and eventually earned enough hours to become a pilot himself. He then worked on obtaining a hot air balloon commercial pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a process that involved attending ground school, taking specific flight instruction classes for ballooning, and getting a pilot’s license with a balloon rating. After nearly a year of course time, Mike was a commercial hot air balloon pilot and ready to start his own business.
“I went to Citizen’s Bank,” Mike chuckles, “they were the only bank in town then and the president laughed when I told him what I wanted to do.”
What he wanted was to buy his own hot air balloon, and it took putting up his house as collateral to do it. In 1986, Mike was the owner of his first balloon.
“I’ve been through twenty since then,” he says, and explains that as a balloon is used, the special fabric becomes worn and needs to be rebuilt or replaced.
Mike currently owns two balloons, identical in their red, blue and yellow color pattern, but different in size. In the summer, his balloons are a common sight over Pagosa Lakes and attract many onlookers when they are inflated each morning near the Wyndham Resort. Mike says that one balloon is made of polyester and the other of a rip-stop nylon material. Both have a silicone coating to keep heat from passing through.
And what does he do with all of the old balloons?
“I shipped the last one back to the manufacturer and they replaced the fabric,” he says. Although some balloons have the actual fabric anchored to the basket, Mike’s balloon has lead ropes that run through several sleeves. The ropes are attached to the basket so the fabric is not load bearing. Mike explains that the fabric in old balloons is not really suitable for anything, including T-shirts as some clients have suggested, and eventually becomes like brittle tissue paper. To maintain a license, a hot air balloon needs a mandatory annual inspection by an FAA authorized repair station. At the maintenance facility, the entire balloon is inspected and may lead to the fabric being repaired, rebuilt or replaced.
Since his chance encounter with ballooning, Mike has logged over 5,000 hours, with 80 percent of that time in the skies over Pagosa Springs. Over the years, he has learned how the local air currents work and what to watch for.
“Most days, the wind will let the balloon drift down the valley,” he shares, “And when we go higher, we drift back up the valley.”
The valley Mike refers to is not noticeable from the ground, but is visible from the sky as a large, slightly bowl-shaped area ringed by mountains. Mike explains that in the morning, the cold, dense air from the mountains drifts slowly westward along U.S. 160, almost always in a corkscrew pattern. By making small altitude adjustments, he can direct the balloon north or south along a path, and by going really high, he can catch the warmer current back east towards where he started.
Residents in the Pagosa Lakes area who watch the balloons on a regular basis may notice the pattern and consistency of the balloon’s path, a large area from where the craft departs — and always returns. And it is all done by wind.
When clients ask Mike, “Where do you go?” he replies, “Anywhere the wind takes me.” He notes that some people are dumbfounded when they realize he doesn’t have a way to steer the balloon, which is why knowing the wind is an important part of being a balloonist. It is a requirement that a balloonist check with the FAA each morning before they go up, and Mike also goes online to check the Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS) at Wolf Creek pass in order to determine the prevailing winds. With years of experience in the air over Pagosa Springs and an understanding of the indicators, Mike is able to determine if it is safe to fly.
“When I see certain winds at Wolf Creek, I know it’s a bad day,” he says.
Mike has flown as many as 100 days straight in the summer, taking up a few locals, but mostly tourists who want to experience the thrill of floating over the scenery. He flies occasionally in the winter, but it is more difficult due to finding places to land when there is four feet of snow on the ground.
“We have to land on a plowed road or a parking lot,” he says, but on a few crisp winter days, his balloon can be seen landing in a Pagosa Lakes neighborhood with both locals and tourists gathering around to watch.
Another Pagosa Springs balloonist, Jennifer Burck, is the owner of a green balloon with pink and yellow accents that is often seen sailing in the sky above Pagosa.
Launching from the Springs Resort downtown, her balloon can carry two to three passengers at a time, usually couples.
“Ten percent are proposals and people getting engaged,” she says. “Fifty percent are anniversaries or birthdays, and the rest is a mix.”
Jennifer was also introduced to ballooning by accident while looking for work. A friend referred her to Mike Marchand who was looking for crew members for his balloon. By her fourth summer, she was training with Mike to become a pilot. She did the majority of her instruction for a private license here in Pagosa Springs, then enrolled in classes in Park City, Utah, to continue on for a commercial license.
Jennifer said the classes in Utah lasted about three weeks total and included 10 flights and 11 hours in the air, ground instruction and a practical test before she finally earned her commercial license.
By 2006, Jennifer was the proud owner of her green, pink and yellow balloon that has taken many couples for intimate rides over Pagosa Springs. In addition to the engagements and anniversary celebrations that she has witnessed, she says the flights that stand out most are the proposals that she saw last year from soldiers who were on leave from their tours of duty overseas.
“They want to get married and start a family,” Jennifer surmises. The young men are home for only a short time before being redeployed, and she is touched by their stories.
Although she says that her business has doubled each year for the past few years, she is taking it slowly, with a plan to eventually acquire a larger balloon for groups. “I’m allowing the business to build itself,” she explains, and because her job as a pilot is seasonal, she also works doing pet-sitting and construction to help with income during the slow winter months.
A common question that both Jennifer and Mike get asked is, “Is it cold up there?”
They explain to their clients that it is actually cozy in the basket because the burners put out a tremendous amount of heat. And because the balloon is drifting at the same speed as the wind, there is no breeze to cause a chill. When clients want to know what it is like to be up in a hot air balloon, Mike says the closest he can come to describing it is like floating on a cloud — the big fluffy ones you see drifting across the sky on a summer day.
“I do this because it’s so much fun,” Jennifer says, and Mike echoes her sentiment. “In ’86, it seemed like something that would be fun,” he reflects, “And it has been good.”
When asked if there is a common denominator that hot air balloon pilots share, Mike jokingly responds, “You mean besides being half crazy?”
Both Jennifer and Mike hope to continue their high-flying adventures and share their enthusiasm with their clients and spectators in Pagosa Springs for many years to come.
To learn more about being a balloon pilot, you are invited to call Mike at 946-2549, or Jennifer at 946-0118.