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Balloon pilot delights in drifting above din

Several hundred feet above the frantic freeway traffic and nowhere near a neon light or clanging slot machine, Doug Campbell works what may be the most peaceful job in Las Vegas.

Campbell, a hot air balloon pilot, drifts serenely with a basketful of tourists over the bustling southwestern corner of Las Vegas, watching the sun rise above thousands of commuters on a recent Monday. They’re blissfully removed from the noise and confinement of the Las Vegas Beltway below.

The silent yellow, green and red orb he’s piloting drifts up about 1,500 feet from the ground, rides a breeze in one direction then dips down for another loop.

It’s a routine that Campbell, 52, owner of D&R Balloons, has practiced nearly half his life. And after the Monday morning flight ends in an open lot near Sunset Road and Grand Canyon Drive Campbell talks about the ups and downs of ballooning in Las Vegas.

He says development, which will fill the space that pilots use for landings with homes, businesses and streets, will make it unsafe to balloon in the Las Vegas Valley within five to six years.

The growth may push ballooning to the outskirts of the region, places like Jean or Primm. But it won’t take the joy from the sport.

"Finding a place to take off is easy. But because we rely on the wind for our navigation, we just can’t pick a spot (to land)," Campbell said. "Flying, within the valley here in Las Vegas, is going to become very limited and very restrictive."

Campbell now flies customers about 15 times per month, depending on the weather. They meet just before sunrise, find a launch spot, usually in the southwestern part of town, and lift off for about an hour in the air. He charges $195 for adults and $145 for kids younger than 12. There are also local discounts.

D&R has a fleet of six balloons and employs 10 people. Campbell and his son are the only full-time employees.

Question: When did you become a balloon pilot?

Answer: I became a balloon pilot in 1984. I originally got started with ballooning with my girlfriend’s father in 1969. I cruised for 15 years or so and finally got my license in 1984 and have been having a ball ever since. I wound up marrying her and had a son with her in 1982. He got his license just this year.

Question: Why did you want to become a balloon pilot?

Answer: It was fun. It was exciting, thrilling, peaceful, relaxing. It was all that. I was running heavy equipment in a local gypsum mine before that. I enjoy running heavy equipment because it is kind of a man thing. But it was hot. It was rough. With ballooning, it is kind of like making money at a hobby.

Question: What sort of training and preparation does it take to be a balloon pilot?

Answer: You have to pass a written test with the (Federal Aviation Administration). There are several ways you can do that (books, literature or balloon school). You can take one of (the balloon school) classes and take the test directly after that. Once you get the written part taken care of you find a commercially licensed pilot. Most of the pilots start out crewing for other pilots. After a little while they learn how to fly from that person.

Question: Is ballooning safe?

Answer: In general it is safe; it is as safe as the people who do it. As long as you stay in the guidelines it is a very safe sport. I’d rather be in a balloon and lose the ability to put heat in the balloon … than in an airplane and lose my engine.

Question: What’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you in a balloon?

Answer: I’ve had a high wind landing (about 10 years ago in Victorville, Calif.,) where it was a little rough. The basket turned over on us. I wound up with my face in the dirt and six people on my back. As I had blood running down my forehead, one of the passengers said, "That was fun, can we do it again?" I said, "Not today." Had I had a rapid deflation system on the balloon then that I have now, that wouldn’t have happened.

Question: What is your most memorable experience operating a balloon?

Answer: There are so many of them. One of my flights I did in France (in 1993), we were drifting over a field of corn about 15 feet over the ground and we came to a fence line. As we crossed the fence, the field below us turned yellow because it was sunflowers facing the sun. As we crossed the fence, we were looking at the front side. It was just absolutely beautiful.

Question: What do you remember about your first balloon flight?

Answer: I remember at the very beginning being a little apprehensive about it, as some people still are. The first flight I did was at a small balloon race in Arizona. I think it was Prescott. It was very, very colorful. It was very friendly, a very happy type of activity. You are surrounded by people who were there for a common goal of having fun.

Question: How has the business of balloon piloting changed during your career?

Answer: What has really changed is the equipment. The fuel tanks, the burners, the baskets, the envelope (balloon), everything has just improved so much over the years. It is like the automobile from the old Model T to the current Corvette. They are coming out with fabrics now that last as long as four times as the original fabric.

Question: What’s the highest you’ve flown in a balloon?

Answer: I’ve been to 13,500 (feet). It was cool. I did that in Albuquerque, N.M. If you are not familiar … it can be a little unnerving. But if you have confidence in your equipment and ability it is fun. You can see forever.

It is a little quieter. You are a little bit higher so you are not hearing noise off the street or lawn mowers. You just don’t have to hit the burners quite as often.

It is not windy because when you are in a balloon you are moving with the wind. Up at that altitude, it starts to cool down a little bit.

Question: Is Las Vegas a good place to operate a balloon business?

Answer: Yeah. We have to deal with certain things here that other pilots don’t have to deal with. The hotels here in Las Vegas try to keep their people on the property. They really don’t like to encourage outside activities. But for the most part … we are surrounded by mountains so it is a really pretty flight every time. People that want to balloon know it is an early morning activity. Some people even stay up all night, come out and fly with us then go back to the hotel.

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