Beth Wright-Smith (60) is a local hot air balloon pilot and an instructor at her own flight school, Airborne Heat Ballooning. She has been a pilot for 37 years.
When was your first balloon ride and what was it like?
My first ride was when I was 17. I had to wait a long time [after my dad got involved in ballooning.] Actually it wasn’t that much fun. I came here for my first Balloon Fiesta with my parents. We had a rather hard landing, which happened a lot in those days. My dad is a big guy—about 250 pounds—and he landed on top of me with cactus on the other side of me. So it wasn’t particularly pleasant.
My passengers were older and I didn’t want them to hurt themselves so we just landed in the back of the truck.
Are you a full-time pilot?
I am. You can actually make a living at this. I have an FAA-approved flight and ground school where I teach people to fly balloons. And I also fly for Wells Fargo. You know the Wells Fargo stagecoach? Nobody knows it has an actual name. Its name is “Center Stage.” I have two others that I also fly.
What is your favorite special shape?
The stagecoach of course! It’s the one I fly and it is massive. It’s a very difficult balloon to fly. It amazes me that it can fly at all. It doesn’t fly particularly well but if you ever get the chance to look at the inside of it, the engineering on it is just incredible—how they got it to maintain its shape when it’s a great big square thing instead of the teardrop shape, which is the best shape for balloons. So the further the shape gets from the teardrop shape, the more difficult it is to fly. The stagecoach is difficult, the Energizer Bunny is difficult.
What exactly makes them difficult to fly?
The stagecoach is a really big balloon so I can be behind a smaller balloon and he’s going one way and I’m going somewhere else because I’m in a different layer of air than he is because I’m so big. It’s also very, very heavy and the heavier the balloon is, the harder it is to fly it. The stagecoach has a lot of dead weight. So, the more things you have at the top of the balloon that can hold air and give you lift, the less difficult it is to fly in some ways. The bunny ears, for example [on the Energizer Bunny] weren’t actually very helpful—they were just there. The wheels—all four of those big wheels on the stagecoach—just add extra weight and no lift to the balloon.
Where is the weirdest place you’ve ever landed?
(laughs) In the back of my truck comes to mind at first. Before I moved here, I had a very small crew. Now, everybody has lift-gates on their trucks, but I didn’t have that. I had one crew person come out with me on a paid ride once. And with the two of us, there was no way we could lift it [the balloon] into the back of the truck—it’s heavy. My passengers were older and I didn’t want them to hurt themselves so we just landed in the back of the truck. I came down and he [the crewman] slid it into the bed. On a calm day, I have good control to within two inches.
Have you ever been in a collision or come close to one?
If the envelopes—the fabric part—touch, that’s not a big deal. Pilots sometimes do it on purpose and it’s called “kissing.” You see a lot of kissing during Balloon Fiesta. [But] it’s not real good for the baskets and envelopes to touch because the fabric can tear or the basket can tip, so you try not to do that. There was one guy that made me mad because we were talking to each other, so he knew I was there, and then he dropped down and came up right underneath me. It’s like, what are you doing? It’s not like he didn’t know I was there.
What’s the ballooning community like?
It’s a very small community. Like anything, there’s competition and cliques, but not really here so much as other places. In one of the places I’ve lived, if you had an Aerostar balloon, you did not talk to people who did not have an Aerostar balloon. If you had a Cameron balloon, you only hung out with the Cameron people. That’s just stupid. There’s no reason for that and it’s not like that here. It can’t be like that because there are so many different kinds of balloons here.
Have you ever had a passenger freak out?
Not really. The only possible rough parts are launches and landing, but the rest—you can be going 50 mph and feel like you’re watching the world go by on a cloud. Unless of course you go through a wind shear where the balloon can get twisted about and the basket might move a little bit. Otherwise you’re just hanging there. You can’t get airsick in a balloon for that very reason. You’re not blasting through the sky and trying to beat it into submission; you’re part of the air, you’re part of the sky
What’s your advice for the world?
Everyone should fly in a balloon at least once.