Into the Wind
An interview with Phil Thompson, owner and founder of Lindstrand Balloons USA
I'm afraid he’ll see right through my questions and realize I've never even been in a balloon.
"P-H-I-L, not Phillip, Thompson, T-
Suddenly, the prepared questions on my page all look like stock filler. I pause and scratch little black stars next to the ones I hope won't annoy him, bigger black stars next to the questions I really know I can pull off. "Great ... so I'm talking to the right guy." I scrape my pen along the metal coil of my notepad.
I wait for the PR stump lines to start snaking up my phone cord, something I expect to happen in any conversation with a sole corporate owner. But Phil is cordial, soft-spoken, articulate. He reminds me of grandfathers—not mine, just grandfathers in general. He quickly briefs me on why it's impossible to calculate how many balloons are actually manufactured yearly in the U.S.—“If that's one of your questions"—
"So anyway, there's maybe 150 balloons a year built in the U.S." He divides the number among two of his competitors, "We produce about 50 balloons a year, 54 in a good year." I don't question his math, partly because I haven't found room to squeeze in a question about the manufacturing process, and partly because he has an honest voice. I’d believe balloons would soon replace cars if he said so.
"Now we're back to the beginning. You ask me the questions in the order you would like to ask." He laughs lightly through those last few words. Looking at the timer on my voice recorder, I laugh a little too. It reads: 14:31. It seems Phil talks about as much as general grandfathers, too. I run my finger over the list of possible questions and stop midway through.
"How did your company get started?"
"You'll learn some history about one of our competitors when I answer this question ... because how I got started in balloon manufacturing, how Lindstrand Balloons USA came to be, are kind of intertwined, but not the same," he begins. Phil started his career in balloon manufacturing working for Cameron Balloons in Ann Arbor, Mich. He talks about the company, how he used to flight test balloons for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification. He was the company's first and only production manager. As he talks, his tone turns reverent.
"That company was owned by a married couple who chose to move on in their lives and go do other things. And I had the opportunity to buy that company. But we couldn't work out terms that were satisfactory to everybody. So, consequently, I left." Phil started calling his ballooning friends from around the country, and they convinced him to stay in the field.
Then it hits me. "Lindstrand" is a name I remember. Per Lindstrand is a man I'd seen once in a History Channel documentary about aeronautics. And then it all comes together: Per Lindstrand was the first person to balloon over both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. I wonder how Phil, this grandfatherly Midwestern sole owner, could be associated with one of the century's most cavalier scientists.
Kids and adults, sometimes even fire trucks, would curiously follow his shadow as he flew overhead.
"I picked up the phone and dialed England ... I kinda forgot about the seven-hour time difference ... and disturbed this gentleman at not a very appropriate time of day. But his name was Per Lindstrand, and that's where our company name came from, spelled L-I-N-D-S-T-R-A-N-D, not Stromd, but Strand."
The year was 1994, and Per Lindstrand had just developed a new balloon model. It was a fresh approach to an old design, and it made waves throughout the ballooning community. Phil, on a whim, decided he was the man to bring the balloon to the U.S. And so, as had The Beatles, as had The Stones, as had Spinal Tap, Lindstrand Balloons crossed the pond to rock the free market.
With his new company and the prestigious Lindstrand name, Phil set out to establish himself.
"We looked at Albuquerque," he says. " ... And in some ways, it made sense. You know, the balloon capitol of the world. There's a hundred people or more walking the street with balloon pilot licenses in their pockets. It's like a built-in clientele. They'll buy the locally made product.
"I've done a lot of things in my life, and it came down to, you know, where do I want to wake up in the morning and call home? My choice to go to Illinois wasn't based on business sense as it should have been. There were too many other things kind of tugging at me at the time. Albuquerque would have been, from a business point of view—we probably would have grown twice as fast, have nationwide, if not worldwide, recognition almost instantly. It's the balloon capital of the world."
"Phil,” I interject. “I proposed this story to find local companies in Albuquerque that manufacture balloons. Surprisingly, I couldn't find any.”
"I wouldn't say 'surprisingly,' ” he counters. Phil goes into great depth about the industry. And, unsurprisingly, the balloon business is like every other business in the country. There are the big dogs and the shrimp; shrimp being the companies that rent balloons and offer personal balloon flights, big dogs being manufacturers with all the tools, money and knowledge, like Phil.
There are hobbyists who, unsurprisingly, balloon for the sake of ballooning. And I suppose you could fit the competitive balloonists, the ones who race around the world, in with hobbyists, though I think Phil would argue otherwise. There are lobbyists, too—think "Mountain Dew Balloon." There's outsourcing, especially with some of the more intricate special shape balloons. There are safety concerns: Ask anyone in New Mexico about a ballooning accident they remember and they probably have a few. Plus, the whole manufacturing process is still done by hand. Phil estimates he spends at least 150 hours of labor or more on each balloon, and that's with an entire crew of employees.
While Phil goes on, I begin to think Albuquerque is just too slow and small for the whole process, and then I think about how the world must see us, how some people in other states are surprised when I speak fluent English, how many bands I absolutely love pass around us without a blink on their way to the West Coast. Then I think about all the other places I hear or read about that I probably would never visit them unless they hosted a Renaissance Fair or something campy. I feel campy.
"Do you come to the Balloon Fiesta?" I ask.
"Every year, for 24 years," he says proudly. "I'm coming down this year, too," though he says he's not going to be chained to his display tent like usual. This year is special. It's Phil's wife's 50th birthday. I know he’s smiling by the way he creases his vowels.
My recorder runs out of memory as I scribble "50th," and it's down to furiously scratching out what I can before Phil grows tired of the interview. If it were still recording, the counter would read 1:22:00, making this the longest discussion about balloons I will probably ever have.
I move to my most important question.
"Phil, what is the appeal of balloons? Why like them at all? ... I mean, I grew up with them; to me they are just novelties." I cringe, wondering why I'm asking him this when I've never even been in a balloon.
He jumps at the question. "I believe it's the most accessible way to fly. ... Balloons don't cost too much, 10 to 20 to 30 thousand, about the price of a pickup truck these days." He tells me a story about his first balloon, Serial #14. When he was in his 20s, he was the only person to own his own balloon in his small town. He says kids and adults, sometimes even fire trucks, would curiously follow his shadow as he flew overhead, gathering around the fields to cheer him as he landed.
"There's not much to them," he affirms. I think of him floating back to that town like a hero, kids still cheering as he descends quietly into a grassy field. I see him tossing ropes out each side of his basket to excited hands.
As our conversation comes to an end, Phil asks me if I would come visit him at the fiesta. I laugh and say I'll bring him a copy of the article. I think I'll also bring some courage to get in a balloon.