The sun rose above the horizon as hot air balloon pilots and their crews worked to inflate envelopes at the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Three-month-old Jonathan Wright watched in awe as a sport became his livelihood.
Wright grew up around hot air balloons, saying his first word was balloon. He saw the business side and later the competitive side of ballooning which inspired him to pursue his own business venture and compete at the national level of competition.
Wrights’ parents were asked to be part of a chase team at the Balloon Fiesta when he was 7 years old. The chase crew uses radios to communicate with the pilot once in the air, so they can track the location and meet the pilot to load the basket and wrap after the flight.
“We did this for many years and that was really our only involvement was the crew during Balloon Fiesta,” Wright said. “Over the years Dad kept talking about a ball and one year he said, ‘Well, I bought a ball. We’ll go get it and learn to fly.
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Wright was attending college at the time. The family hobby brought Wright into contact with pilots at the competitive balloon event at Fiesta, which he began competing in around 2006 and continued to compete for several years. He became a member of the Top Gun Balloon Club in Albuquerque and began competing in the Hot Air Competition division in 2012.
“I was hanging out with friends at a hot air balloon event in South Carolina – Freedom Weekend Aloft Festival – it was a competition event. A day after the flight, I was walking through a field and Joe Heartsill (a competitive balloon pilot) walked up to me and introduced himself,” Wright said.
Wright knew who Heartsill was, but wasn’t sure how Heartsill knew him. Heartsill asked if he was attending the event, but Wright was just hanging out with friends. This conversation was Wright’s ah-ha moment that inspired him to pursue competitive ballooning.
“I thought if Joe Heartsill knows who I am and he thinks I’m a good driver, maybe there’s something to that and maybe I should take care of myself,” did he declare.
During his first season competing in Top Gun competitions, a board member approached Wright to inform him that his grade point average was high enough for him to compete in the Nationals.
“It was back when you had to qualify for the national championships,” he said. “It was a little more difficult to integrate than at the moment.”
However, he didn’t pay his $20 dues because Wright didn’t think he would get anywhere in the sport.
At this time, Wright decided to stop flying his father’s 90 round hot air balloon called the Chain Gang and purchased a racing balloon, which has a narrower envelope. He named his balloon Unchained Balloon, paying homage to his family’s balloon by sticking with the turquoise color pattern and a red and blue pattern, but with a broken pattern.
“I bought a running ball so I could get more competitive and get more involved,” he said. “I got my race ball in 2014 and qualified and competed in Nationals every year since.”
Wright used a car analogy to differentiate the handling of a taller wrap and a narrow wrap.
“It’s the difference between driving the family sedan and driving the sports car,” he said. “They do the exact same thing, they will get you to the same point. It’s just that we’re going to make tighter turns, it’s going to start faster, it’s going to stop faster and it’s just more responsive. You can make minor corrections much quicker and easier and it will react to winds much faster as it is smaller and more agile and carries less momentum.
Prior to the Nationals, Wright competed in two Top Gun weekend events, the Great Texas Balloon Race and the Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race. Wright finished in first place at the Top Gun event. At the Rio Grande Classic, he finished second. Helen at the Atlantic was second and in the Great Texas Balloon Race was fifth.
The Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race is an endurance race that challenges pilots to travel from Helen, Georgia to I-95 on the Atlantic coast.
“The shortest distance to get there is about 210 miles in a straight line,” he said. “It’s a two-day race Thursday and Friday, from sunrise Thursday to sunset Friday. You can fly as much as you want during the day. You’re not going to get there in one flight because you have to stop to refuel. You document where you land and then you go from there.
The objective of the segment race is to reach the coast first, but if neither driver reaches the finish line, the winner is the one who comes closest to it.
“You’re talking about doing long flying days,” Wright said. “Taking off in a hot air balloon at sunrise and landing at 2pm mid-June is not the best time to be a hot air balloon. I had a lot of loud landings during this run.
When Wright isn’t competing, he runs his hot air balloon business Hot Air Expedition in Phoenix, Arizona. He flies a Charger 300 with 12 passengers seven days a week, which helps him hone his skills in navigating to a landing spot that serves as a target in a larger balloon so balloon racing becomes easier.
Wright retired Unchained Balloon after logging over 400 hours. While he could have made the ball fly more in competition, the older the fabric, the more porous it becomes.
“As you get older, the fabric will get a little more porous, so you’ll lose energy efficiency and they won’t be as responsive,” he said.
During this year’s competition, Wright will fly a new ball called Unchained Remix, which is black with a teal and fuchsia pattern.
“The new one stands out pretty well in the sky,” he said. “I like it.”
As Wright continues to hone his navigation skills ahead of Nationals, he hopes some of the tasks will require a gravity marker drop. Pilots must hook the marker, or bag, or ball basket and drop it on a target, rather than throwing the marker.
“I’m a big fan of the gravity drop because I can fly out of my ball, but I can’t throw it to save my life. I feel like it evens the playing field for me when we let’s do gravity tasks because that’s where you have the ball, not how good a baseball pitcher you are.
He hopes to put his navigational and racing skills to use in the events heading into the national championships as he seeks a win.
National pilots and their teams will visit Scotts Bluff County for the US National Hot Air Balloon Championship August 9-13.