Daniel Liberti makes his living flying high above beautiful landscapes.
On a brisk January morning in an empty southwest Las Vegas lot, as the sun crested the horizon and warmed the air, Liberti got to work.
First, he unloaded a large wicker basket from the back of a white Ford F-250. Danny Breeden, field operations manager for Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Co., grabbed a fan. Then came the colorful cloth balloon that would keep Liberti in the air above the desert hills.
Liberti is a pilot, trained in the world’s oldest form of aviation: hot air ballooning.
He recently moved to Las Vegas to help open the fourth office for Rainbow Ryders, the country’s largest hot air balloon company. It has offices in Phoenix; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Liberti’s day starts before 6 a.m. at the Rainbow Ryders office on Cameron Street, where clients check in. The work starts there.
“We always say that piloting the balloon is probably 30th on the list of things we do,” Liberti said. Other titles on that list include meteorologist, tour guide and bartender (if you count pouring champagne for a toast at the end).
On the ride to the launch site, Liberti explained what the trip would be entail, safety precautions and how hot air balloon trips are planned.
To determine the wind direction high above the ground, the crew sent up a helium test balloon, or pibal.
“The biggest thing is, we want to see if (the wind) is going to pick up or actually calm down,” Liberti said.
Liberti also called the local flight service station to check in. Unlike with helicopters or airplanes, flight plans aren’t required to be filed for hot air balloons.
“The reason we don’t do that is because we’re at the mercy of the winds,” Liberti said. “So calling flight service kind of makes up for that.” Each balloon has an identification number that’s provided to the station, and then “it’s all official,” Liberti said.
After the balloon was attached to the basket, Liberti and Breeden turned the burners on and blasted 10-foot columns of flame into the balloon’s envelope. Over about 20 minutes the cloth went from limp fabric to a buoyant rainbow, straining toward the air and lifting the basket upright.
It was time to get in. Once unanchored from the truck, the balloon began to rise at 300 to 400 feet per minute.
From 1,000 feet, the Las Vegas Valley is an alternating patchwork of brown lots and rooftops. Backyard pools are droplets. Miles away from the launch point near Southern Hills Hospital and Medical Center, the Strip was visible in relief against an orange sunrise.
Naked construction sites on their constant march toward the valley’s western hills provided a stark contrast against the cliffsides lined with cacti, scrub brush and the occasional abandoned car.
The silent ride was punctuated only by the occasional blast of the two burners, which heated the air inside the balloon. As the air warmed and expanded, the balloon rose. As it cooled, the balloon gently descended. Temperatures inside the balloon range between 140 and 200 degrees.
Liberti said he appreciates hot air ballooning even more after more than a decade working behind a desk as an information technology manager.
“It gives you whole other level of respect for it,” he said.
Liberti joined Rainbow Ryders as a pilot about two years ago, he said. He has been flying recreationally since he was a teenager in Albuquerque, known as the Hot Air Ballooning Capital of the World. It’s the site of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot air balloon festival in the U.S. and second-largest in the world after Mondial Air Ballons in northeastern France.
“(In Albuquerque) it seems as if your family doesn’t do it, they know somebody that does,” Liberti said. His brother, dad and uncle all were pilots before he got his license.
Albuquerque is where Rainbow Ryders founder Scott Appelman also fell in love with ballooning. He moved there from California in the early 1970s, as the festival was getting started.
Appelman just got “bit by it,” he said. He started running the business out of his garage 35 years ago with one balloon. It has grown to a company with more than 30 employees, $4 million in annual revenue and almost 30 balloons.
Appelman said he envisions more expansion for Vegas, including starting a hot air balloon festival. In the meantime, Appelman said, he plans to add a third balloon to Rainbow Ryders fleet with the Nevada flag on it.
As the balloon descended, Liberti checked his smartphone for map and weather information (technology has made flying a lot easier; people formerly flew by sight and feel). He reached his chase crew — including field operator Breeden — through the radio to confirm a landing spot near Blue Diamond Road, about 4 miles southwest of the flight’s starting point.
After landing, Liberti recited the classic balloonist’s prayer from memory.
“May the winds welcome you with softness. May the sun bless you with its warm hands,” Liberti said. “May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter and sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”