There’s a chill in the air as the sun begins to rise. Laurie Spencer climbs into her hot air balloon basket after checking off an extensive safety checklist. It’s time.
The colorful fabric illuminates as Laurie pulls the lever to release the propane-fueled flames into the envelope. Soon, the basket leaves the ground, and she is airborne. That’s when the magic happens.
Laurie’s fascination with vividly colored airships began when she was given a hot air balloon ride in 1980 as a Christmas gift. She wasn’t nervous, even though she had never flown in a balloon before.
“I love adventures, so I was really looking forward to it,” she says.
That first ride sparked the Boise, Idaho, resident’s love for ballooning and sharing the sport with others. Laurie got her pilot’s certification in 1991 after spending a year working on a ground crew for other pilots.
She says there is a certain glimmer in people when they are around balloons.
“I like to think of it this way: When a baby is sitting in a high chair and they drop something, it just falls to the floor,” Laurie says. “But give them a helium balloon, and you see the wonder in their eyes as it goes up. I get to see the wonder in people’s eyes each time they see a balloon in the air.”
While Laurie loves piloting her own balloons, her favorite part is meeting people and making connections.
“Our sport is happy,” she says. “We’re able to bring smiles to people’s faces, but they also make a memory to last a lifetime.”
Laurie operates Lighter Than Air America, a company founded by her late husband and fellow balloon pilot, Scott. The business specializes in balloon promotion for clients, as well as commercial flight uniquely shaped balloons for well-known brands, including Disney and Coca-Cola. Two of Lighter Than Air America’s balloons were also featured as the backdrop during a Christian Dior fashion show in May 2017.
Hot air balloon pilot Vic Johnson lived in the Seattle area for most of his life, but now lives in Prosser, Washington. When he decided to skip class one day as an Auburn High School junior, the last thing he expected was to discover a new passion.
“It was a beautiful morning in March, and I just didn’t feel like going to my shop class,” Vic says.
Rather than getting Vic and his friends in trouble, their teacher offered them the chance to crew for a local balloon pilot. That experience is all it took for Vic to want more.
“Once you’re bit by the ballooning bug, it’s in your blood,” he says.
Vic began crewing for pilots and learning all he could about hot air balloons, eventually earning his pilot certification. But he had his sights set on a higher goal.
“I used to look at Mount Rainier, which was basically in my backyard, dreaming of what it would be like to fly over it,” he says.
Vic’s dream became a reality in 2002 when he and his copilot, Larry Simburger, became the first team to fly over the mountain. The flight took about three hours, and Vic says the preparation and teamwork are what made everything possible. He researched, prepared equipment and consulted with other pilots for nearly a decade before deciding to attempt the feat.
“The flight technicalities were similar to flying over Mount Everest,” Vic says. “The climbing altitude was very comparable, and Mount Rainier is famous for having its own weather conditions.”
Their crew consisted of a group of more than 40 people who helped with takeoff, tracking and landing.
In honor of his accomplishment, Vic was awarded the Montgolfier Diploma—an award for outstanding performance by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world air sports federation.
Vic and his wife, Mandy, operate a balloon repair station called Columbia Balloon Port.
Wonders in the Sky
Witnessing vibrant hot air balloons dot the sky is a special experience, and the sport of ballooning has lifted off across the Pacific Northwest. Annual festivals and events are marked on calendars for pilots and spectators alike.
Planning for these events begins long before pilots step into their gondolas. Laurie’s company produces events such as the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede, sponsored by Columbia Rural Electric Association, along with the Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic.
“It’s a unique way to make my living,” she says. “I love it, and it’s my passion. I have amazing adventures and friends all over the world.”
Cheri White, general manager at Cooperative Balloon Associates, says balloons are a wonderful way to help electric cooperatives connect with their members.
“We’re goodwill ambassadors for the co-ops,” she says. “Touchstone Energy balloons are seven stories high, so people are really excited when they see them in person. I think balloons just make everyone feel young and happy.”
Laurie relishes in the peace and tranquility of being in the air.
“You’re moving with the wind, and you become the wind,” she says. “It’s so quiet and serene that it’s sometimes hard to put that feeling into words.”