Maintenance technician Kasey Schwemmer is living his dream. A hot air balloon enthusiast since childhood, Kasey became a pilot 11 years ago and has been taking to the sky ever since.
“It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do … something I’ve known since I was about three years old and saw balloons fly over my house,” said Kasey. “When they asked me in kindergarten what I wanted to do when I grow up, I said I wanted to be a hot air balloon pilot.”
Kasey got his start in ballooning as a member of various ground crews, where he would assist with the set up and inflation of the balloons before following them during their flights and eventually helping them make safe landings.
Making the jump to pilot, however, was a challenge due to the lack of flight training schools in this part of the country.
“Around here, if you don’t want to travel, you basically have to know somebody who’s willing and capable to give flight instruction,” said Kasey.
“My wife, Val, and I have known each other for most of our lives, about 25 years now, and all because of ballooning. Her dad flew the RE/MAX balloon back in the 90s and early 2000s and ended up being my flight instructor,” said Kasey.
The training itself can take a couple of years to complete and requires knowledge of federal regulations, airspace and weather—everything required of airplane and helicopter pilots. The main difference being the variable of unpredictability involved in hot air ballooning.
“Every hot air balloon flight is different. A lot of it is unknown because we can’t steer the balloon—we go 100 percent where the wind takes us,” said Kasey. “We can plan our flight to an extent, but we never know exactly where we’re going to land.”
While Kasey enjoys leisurely hot air balloon rides, his real passion is in competitive ballooning where pilots are judged on accuracy as they attempt to hit various targets along a single flight.
“I’d much prefer to be doing a competition than a peaceful ride at home. Mostly for me, it’s an adrenaline rush. Your heart’s going the whole time, you get closer to the target and you anticipate when to drop your marker and how close you get to the ground. It’s really cool,” said Kasey.
As for those who might be nervous about boarding a hot air balloon, Kasey has a surprising admission.
“Believe it or not, a lot of balloon pilots—including myself— are not fond of heights,” said Kasey. “It’s a totally different sensation. It’s never like anything you’d expect.”
PHOTOS: top and middle, bottom, Kasey flying at the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, a nine-day event with over 600 balloons; bottom and middle, top, Kasey competing at the National Balloon Classic, a nine-day event in Indianola, Iowa.