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Up, up and away

Fargo man has been hot air ballooning since 1983

By Lisa Ridder

Fargo native John Boulger never dreamed that answering a chance phone call would introduce him to the sport of hot air ballooning, changing the course of his life forever.

“I belonged to a service club and there was another fellow in there named Rich Burns, who was an architect in Fargo,” said John. “On a Saturday he called me and said, ‘Can you help me tomorrow morning? I need to get up early.’ I said, ‘What do you need help with?’ He said, ‘Well, I bought a hot air balloon today and my instructor said I need five people to put it in the air.’ So, I helped Rich do that. He gave me a ride that day and I just fell in love with the sport.”

John Boulger flies his current balloon over the Cormorant Lakes area. Contributed photo

After that first ride, which took place in 1983, John discovered that ballooning aligned with who he was. “I am a morning person. I like being outdoors. I like activities that are not focused on alcohol. It is the type of sport, while it takes five people none of them need to be particularly strong or athletic in order to be able to do it. And it makes a lot of people happy.”

John is one of only four other known balloonists in the Fargo and Detroit Lakes area. “Someone once told me that there are only about 6,000 hot air balloonists in the United States and that is not very many when you consider the number of people in this country,” said John.

Six months after John’s response to Rich’s phone call he owned his own balloon with a couple partners. A short time later, he bought his partners out

“Since then I have owned several balloons and am now on my sixth balloon that I have had ownership in.”

Hot air balloons are considered to be aircraft and they are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. The class is referred to as LTA (Lighter Than Air). There are three classes of pilot license: student, private and commercial.

“If you are a commercial hot air balloon pilot, you can charge passengers for giving them a ride, you can fly banners for pay, and it also allows you to instruct,” said John. “I have a commercial balloon license. I only fly balloons. I do not fly any other aircraft.”

John flies a sport balloon. If he needs to display a banner, he has Velcro on the envelope and can attach the banner using the Velcro.

“The basket I am flying right now is rated for four passengers but I only insure for three passengers so I would never take more than three people with me at one time,” said John. “It would be really crowded with five people in the basket. I fly a 105,000 cubic feet balloon. There are much larger balloons out there. They probably go up to as large as 500,000 cubic feet. Those balloons can have a dozen to 15 passengers, maybe even more. They are huge. To me they look like cattle cars in the air. My passengers all have a 360 degree view of what we are flying over. With those larger balloons you are blocked.”

John and his friends usually fly out of Detroit Lakes and Cormorant because the area has a lot more pasture land than the Fargo-Moorhead area. John finds the area beautiful with the lakes, forests, marshes and wildlife.

As with some other sports, hot air ballooning requires special equipment and can be expensive. However, a decent hot air balloon typically costs less than a good fishing boat.

“You can get a good used sport balloon for $15,000 to $20,000. You could get a good new balloon for $40,000 to $50,000 and if you wanted a special shaped balloon, the sky is the limit on what you could spend. Then you need a big enough vehicle to either pull a trailer, or with a pickup truck have a back end that will hold the equipment. You need to be able to transport your passengers back to the launch field when you land. There is other auxiliary equipment like a fan and ropes and things that you end up buying. As with most people if you have an avocation or something you enjoy you really will spend what it takes to enjoy it.”

John has made a lot of friends and has had a lot of opportunities stemming from his love of ballooning.

“It is a great activity for building friends,” said John.

One opportunity John has enjoyed has been providing rides as part of a last wish request.

“I have been fortunate that families have trusted me to do it,” said John. “I appreciate the fact that I can bring some happiness, or some peace, or some joy to someone. I worry about them getting hurt as a result of the balloon flight. I try to pick the day very carefully, but you can never predict what weather is going to do. I have said some prayers fervently for safe landings when the winds have changed from what was forecast and I think that I have been heard in answer to those prayers, because the landings have been okay.”

John remembered one incident that involved a dramatic landing.

“A gentleman who was suffering ALS really wanted to go on a balloon ride and his family really wanted to be there,” he said.

John supervises, assists and provides coaching and feedback to Perry and the crew during the inflation process. Contributed photo

The man’s family got up at 2:30 a.m. and drove from Minneapolis to join him on the ride.

“I took the gentleman and a daughter of his and we put a stool in the balloon that he could sit on,” he said.

As they flew, John could tell the wind was picking up. He started to be concerned about how to land without his passengers getting hurt.

“There were a lot of growing crops and I saw what looked like a grassy field with a white sign that I could not read at the front of it. I said, ‘that is where we are going to land.’

It was a later summer day there was a lot of humidity in the air. The grass was really wet.

“We were going maybe 15 mph by this time, which was three times as fast as I wanted to go when I landed with him.” said John.

They set down and the grass was so wet that the balloon would not stop. John pulled out the parachute top and dumped as much as he could.

“We are going and going and we are headed towards a barbed wire fence and a corn field and I just kept yelling, ‘Please stop! Please stop!’ and we finally did. It was about five feet short of the top of the balloon hitting the barb wire fence,” he said.

The hat and glasses the man was wearing fell off him and were somewhere in the field. They were able to get him out of the basket, as they were laying horizontal after dragging across the field. They were able to help him sit on the basket. The man was happy and everyone was okay. Later, John and the man’s daughter were able to find the man’s hat and glasses.

“The family was great,” he said. “About two weeks later I received a package in the mail and it was a colored pencil drawing of the balloon being dragged along the ground and in the bubble, like in a cartoon, they had written “Please stop! Please stop!” It was very nice of that family. They were all really nice people. They helped pack up and they were happy that their dad got the ride.”

Not long after that memorable ride, the man with ALS passed away.

Perry and Laurie Ochsner of Dilworth have known John a long time. John recently taught Perry how to fly a hot air balloon. Laurie describes what the first flight was like...

“The first takeoff was a bit scary but exhilarating,” said Laurie, “You get a great sense of everything around you and below you. The feeling of heights is there but not terrifying like I thought it would be. The best way I could describe it would be very peaceful. You see things in a different perspective. It is something everyone should try at least once.”

Not only did John teach Perry how to fly a balloon but he also sold one of his balloons to Perry.

“The balloon I sold to Perry, I think, is the most beautiful of the balloons that I have owned,” said John. “I actually owned that balloon twice. The first time I had it the fabric was recalled and I said, ‘I want the same design.’ So they made it in a different fabric for me.”

Perry started crewing with John more than 10 years ago.

John Boulger Contributed photo

“Now I am a licensed aviation mechanic so I will do annual inspections for him. I learned quite a bit about ballooning and John has been an excellent mentor. I was drawn more to the science of ballooning and really did not have much interest in actually flying it. Soon I became part of the ballooning community and just fell in love with these people. Being a passenger is easy. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Perry said learning to fly the balloon is getting to know the aircraft.

“Some days it feels very much like it has a bad attitude. Other days, you swear it is trying to make you look good. Flying a hot air balloon is much like three dimensional sailing. There is nothing like it. I did not see that when I first started but I see that and I feel it now. My friends John and Jayme have given me an opportunity that I will be forever grateful for.”

Safety is an important element to hot air ballooning and John takes safety very seriously.

“Almost everything you do that is outdoors has a possibility of a risk to it,” said John. “I like fact that I am going to be responsible for mitigating the risk, because I really do consider myself a responsible pilot. I thinks it is less dangerous than driving in a car or crossing a busy intersection. There are so few balloons that really get into trouble so when it happens it makes national news. The biggest danger in ballooning is hitting a power line. Part of my instructions to my passengers is all of us will look for power lines and will acknowledge to each other that we see a power line. That works out very well.”

John has been fortunate enough to have numerous flying adventures. He has traveled across the country and around the world. The largest balloon event takes place in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“They have had as many as 1,000 balloons, but they decided that was too many so currently I would say it is about 650 balloons, including regular shape and special shape balloons,” said John. “I have been fortunate. When Kodak was the main sponsor of the event, I flew for Kodak. After Kodak withdrew as the main sponsor, I flew for Honda for many years. I flew for Carnival Cruise Lines for a while and now I fly for ExxonMobil when I am down there. The nice thing about being a sponsored balloon with one of those organizations is you get a very nice launch spot out of the deal. That is part of the equation. They want you to be at the front of the line so I have been lucky enough to be at the front of the line for quite a few years. I have been going there for about 33-34 years.

In November, John will fly in Leon, Mexico for another event.

“It is a city of 1.5 million people and most people have never heard of it,” he said. “They want to build a brand for themselves and they are using Albuquerque as the model.”

It is different flying in Leon compared to Albuquerque, said John. “In Albuquerque if you stay up too long it is going to get windy and in Leon if you stay up too long, it is going to go still. Whatever you are over when it goes still that is what you are dealing with and that really is more difficult than dealing with winds, because with winds, assuming I have managed my fuel correctly, I can ride the wind to where I get to a landing spot, I can just ride the wind out of town, but when you have got no wind, it is awful,” he said. “There have been some landings there that prayer is the only thing I can use to explain how I made it.”

But the atmosphere in Leon and Albuquerque is hard to beat, he said.

“It is fun,” said John. “The people are wonderful. I like the ballooning community. I like the fact that we make people happy. While I have described moments of desperation in getting a landing spot, I have always been able to find something to come through. I have landed on the edge of cliffs no wider than the basket of my balloon and then gotten pulled to a wider part of that land mass. I have landed on the edge of tall cactus deserts and they have cactus there that grow to 25-30 feet.

John participated in the Christopher Columbus Rediscover America by Balloon Quest, a five- week event. Balloons are launched out of various cities across the US, flying diagonally across the country from Olympia, Washington to St. Augustine, Florida.

John also participated in another five-week balloon journey -- this one was held “down under.”

“I flew across Australia as part of what the Australians called their Bicentenary, meaning their 200 year anniversary,” said John. We started in Perth, which is in the west coast of Australia and ended in Sydney, which is kind of in the southeast coast. We cannot go from point A to point B in a balloon. We can only go the direction the wind took us so what we did is launched out of about 17 different communities across Australia. We had the support of the Australian military. They sent some big vehicles along so if there was a vehicle breakdown or a difficult retrieval they would help. It was just a lot of fun. It was great!”

Many people don’t realize it takes a group of people to get the balloon up and flying.

John poses with some of the local residents at the International Balloon Festival (known as FIG) in Leon, Mexico. The first festival was in December of 2002. Contributed photo

“I like to have myself and five others to put the balloon up,” said John. “I can do it with four others if I have to, but the more the merrier because it makes lifting easier and it is safer to have enough people that you can put one person at each task. One of those people needs to be experienced, because they have to pack up any equipment left behind and they have to follow in a chase vehicle.”

Safety has been one of the key components to John’s many successful balloon adventures.

“Safety just has to be number one and that is why I can go out into a field and I can inflate my balloon, and if I do not think it is right, I will pull the top out and say, ‘Sorry folks we are not going to fly today.’ I have done that a number of times,” said John. You just cannot take a chance with safety. It is a thrill to have that challenge to make it safe, to make it in the right spot, not damage any equipment and not hurt any people. Sometimes we have no landing spots, or we are just about out of fuel, or sometimes it is just not looking good. So to come out of those with a success, yeah, I like the challenge.”

The biggest challenges are usually caused when the wind picks up.

“I have landed once over 40 mph and I have probably landed about half a dozen times at over 30 mph,” he said. “I can say weather forecasts are a lot better than they used to be with the computerized access to information, but down in Albuquerque I had the wife of another pilot with me and the wind came up, after we went in the air, so I flew us out to a desert area and said ‘We are going to land’ She is very experienced and she braced herself well. She said, ‘You could just hear the cactus exploding as we hit them.’ There is just no way to land smoothly at 30 mph.”

“Sometimes I can find winds at different altitudes going different directions and I can use them to do some steering,” said John.” You try to read the winds as best you can, you try to look at smoke stacks, look at other balloons if you are at an event that has other balloons to see what is happening with them and then try to make a judgment on how you are going to fly.

John is diligent about keeping his focus when flying.

“I cannot think about anything else just flying that balloon,” he said. “I do not even take pictures when I am up in the balloon, because I do not want to lose my focus.”

John was born in Fargo. His parents ran a funeral home business in Fargo that has been in his family for over 120 years. He graduated from Shanley High School. He attended Saint John’s University for a while before completing his degree at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

John pilots his hot air balloon over Long Lake, located near Detroit Lakes. Contributed photo

“I got into booking bands and producing dances and that went very well for me while I was in college, but it also meant that I had exposure to the legal arena because bands would not show up for a job or there would be a problem with a permit with the city,” said John. “I was involved in a lot of legal things before I got out of college and thought I should go to law school and figure out how all this stuff works. I became a lawyer.” John attended the University of North Dakota (UND) School of Law. Prior to attending law school, John was involved in a lawsuit with the City of Fargo, represented by the Firm of Solberg and Stewart (Wayne Solberg and Gary Stewart). Upon John’s graduation from law school they made him an offer of employment.

“Two great gentleman,” said John. “Because of my father and these two men I have had great mentors in my life.”

John’s practice focuses on transactional law, business and real estate transactions, probate and estate planning.

John was able to pass on his love for flying to his son, but not his love of ballooning.

“My son is presently in flight school and he wants to be a commercial airline pilot, but he does not have any interest in ballooning,” said John. “Part of it may be that he has been around it his whole life so it is no big deal to him. If he wants a ride, he can just go out with his dad and get a ride. I also think if you have grown up with video games, and how fast games move and how colorful they, the subtleties of hot ballooning are not nearly as exciting.”

But for John, ballooning remains exciting 35 years after this first ride.

“I love hot air ballooning,” said John. “It is a great activity for building friends. It makes people happy, it makes me happy. I will balloon until I feel that I cannot balloon safely or somebody else tells me I am not safe, but I hope it is the former. I cannot imagine a more personally rewarding activity or anything else I could do that would make other people happy the way ballooning does or would make me happy like ballooning does,” said John.

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