Hot air balloon pilot finds peace and purpose in the skies above the Roaring Fork Valley
The air was calm, skies clear, and temperatures close to freezing as the sun rose over Snowmass Village on Saturday morning — just about as good as it gets for a hot air balloon flight in the mountains.
“What a perfect morning,” said Jason Gabriel, a pilot at the 48th annual Snowmass Balloon Festival.
At the helm of his “Spirit of ‘76” balloon, Gabriel was hoping to land right back where he started in Town Park, saving his chase crew a trip into one of the nearby neighborhoods. But even an experienced pilot like Gabriel can’t control the wind, and a light breeze blowing west had other ideas about his final destination.
“Oh man, I'm going to owe you extra breakfast burritos and beer for this one if I make you drive all the way up this hill,” Gabriel joked over the radio to his crew as he eyed a viable landing spot — more than a mile up a winding road amid a golden hillside of oak brush. At least the route was drivable; crews sometimes have to bushwhack and traverse open fields to get a vessel back to its truck.
Once a balloon is in the air, pilots can only control vertical movement on the fly. Gabriel can burn some fuel, which makes the balloon go up, or he can open a vent, let some hot air out, and make the balloon go down. (Other vents can spin the balloon around, but that’s just for navigation and photo-ops.)
The only thing that makes the balloon go left or right is the wind, which can change direction and speed at different altitudes. Hence the ups and downs of ballooning, as pilots move higher or lower in the sky to find a favorable draft.
“I can’t steer, so I'm always working hard to work the winds, to understand the weather patterns, to predict and forecast things that are really hard to predict and forecast,” Gabriel said.
“It's tough, it's challenging, it makes me stretch myself mentally,” he added. “And it's like a puzzle every day.”
That’s what he likes about it — and what makes this hobby a lot like his day job as an aerospace engineer for the U.S. Space Force.
“You know, we have an environment in space that’s really hard to operate in, we have systems that are very complex, like the satellites we operate, and … some of those skills do transfer,” Gabriel said.
There are actually a lot of parallels between Gabriel’s military career and his passion for ballooning. He’s 34 now, working with the Space Force, but before that, he spent a decade in another branch of the military, the Air Force.
Gabriel did all of his balloon pilot training when he was stationed in Albuquerque — home to the largest gathering of hot air balloons in the world — and scored a good deal on the Spirit of ‘76 from a retired army officer in 2014.
Two months after he bought the balloon, Gabriel was deployed overseas and spent some time working in Afghanistan.
“I was gone for almost a year,” Gabriel said. “And when I got back, (ballooning) was another way for me to help get … integrated with my family, and to sort of get back to normal life basically.”
“Normal” life for Gabriel, anyways. He’s been enamored with ballooning since his first ride as a 9-year-old growing up in Colorado Springs.
“I still have that picture on my desk for my first flight,” some 25 years later, Gabriel said. “And I never thought we'd be here, but here we are, and it's a testament to all the work that the crew does and that my family has done to support us.”
And while the sport can be unpredictable and challenging, it’s also a stress release, he said.
“It's just a nice escape to be serene and peaceful and getting used like this and Snowmass up in the mountains, and it's really great.
Gabriel shares this experience with other members of the military, too, offering rides to people who have just returned from deployment overseas.
“They've been separated from their families for a long time and doing some really hard work overseas,” Gabriel said.
“Just helping families reconnect like that has been a really powerful and important part of what we do,” he added.
It’s also how Gabriel got a good deal on this balloon in the first place.
The retired army officer who owned the Spirit of ‘76 before Gabriel also gave a lot of rides to military folks and first responders and asked Gabriel to do the same.
Most of Gabriel’s current balloon crew are service members as well — many are either active or retired military members, police officers, firefighters, or paramedics.
It’s like a “tight-knit family,” Gabriel said, and the crew members agreed.
“Ballooning specifically, it's such a community sport,” said Ella Hurley, one of the members of Gabriel’s crew for the festival. “There's so many people involved, and they're all so excited to be there. You know, it's all by choice, and the energies are so positive around it, and everybody's so excited.”
They’re excited even when the balloon does land further away from the start, on that little stretch of road tucked into the foliage (no bushwhacking required this time). As they deflated and rolled up the balloon, there was a sense of both camaraderie and efficiency that seemed fitting, given their backgrounds in aviation and the military.
Even Gabriel’s balloon has a patriotic spirit: The design, with stars and stripes in red, white, and blue, was created for the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976.
“It's the only balloon like it in the world,” Gabriel said. “There is no other ‘76 flying. … The opportunity and the privilege to do that is certainly not lost on me, and I know the crew really enjoys that as well.”
The fabric wears out over time, so this is the third iteration of the design, but Gabriel thinks there’s a lot more life in this version yet.
“I’ll keep flying it as long as I can,” Gabriel said.
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