Local Resident is a Hot Air Balloon Enthusiast

Writer: Carrie Vittitoe
Photographer: Jackie Miller

Derek Browning’s first job as a teenager in 1979 was at a hotel in Jeffersonville, Indiana. His boss asked him if he’d like to help with the hot air balloon that the local convention bureau had purchased to advertise Southern Indiana and bring visitors to the downtown area. Derek began crewing the “Southern Indiana is the Sunny Side of Louisville” balloon, which gave him something fun to do and the opportunity to meet people.

“I did something that nobody else I knew was doing,” he says. As he became more interested in hot air ballooning, he would drive to U of L’s Shelby campus from Portland in the early hours of Saturday mornings to help the crew.

Some of Derek’s fondest memories involve hot air ballooning adventures. In 1980, he and some friends drove 800 miles in the back of a pickup truck to Indianola, Iowa for the US National Balloon Championship. He didn’t know how he was going to get home. A taxi ride to Des Moines and a bus ride to Louisville took him 16 hours and made him swear off buses for life.

“For a kid, it was a heck of an adventure,” he says.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Derek began working on his private pilot’s license, which he did with the help of a friend, Sam Beazly, whom he crewed for regularly. Crewing for so many years helped make the licensing process easier for Derek. Over the years, he had picked up considerable knowledge, such as knowing that a pilot can fly a balloon at 250 degrees but only for a short amount of time and that a pilot should never exceed 275 degrees.

Derek’s interest in hot air balloons eventually led to his career in law enforcement. He frequently crewed with Jerry Cowles, who was a Clarksville, Indiana officer, and their friendship exposed Derek to the ins and outs of policing. It was through policing that Derek met his wife, Jessie, a relationship that might just be kismet.

The couple met in 1997 after Jessie had moved to Kentucky from Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is the home of the largest balloon festival in the United States. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is a nine-day event that hosts more than 500 balloons and hundreds of thousands of attendees. Ballooning became an automatic conversation starter for them. After a time, Derek asked Jessie if she’d like to come help him fly. She gave him her phone number with a note scrawled across it that said, “For ballooning only.” They married in 1999.

Derek credits Jessie with making his dream of having his own balloon a reality.

“They aren’t cheap, and I just never thought of making that investment,” he says. Fortunately, a friend knew someone selling a balloon, so Derek purchased This End Up with Jessie’s encouragement in 2011. He went on to get his commercial pilot’s license in 2012.

Owning a balloon is like owning anything, it requires maintenance and inspection. Since a hot air balloon is a registered Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) aircraft, Derek has to have his inspected every year or 100 flight hours. A flight hour doesn’t just mean lifting off the ground.

“Any time you light it up, even for a glow, counts as hours on the balloon,” he says. All parts of the balloon are inspected, from the fuel tanks to the envelope (which is the balloon part of the aircraft).

Flying in a hot air balloon is a unique experience.

“You get a view that not a lot of people ever get,” Derek says. It is quiet in the air, except for the sound of the burners, and he says there is no sense of movement.

Piloting a balloon isn’t always relaxing and peaceful, especially when he’s trying to get to a specific location. Derek has at least nine weather apps on his phone that he uses to track the winds at various levels of altitude. Although he says he doesn’t really like to fly higher than about 1,500 feet, sometimes the wind he needs to get somewhere is at 3,000 feet, so he’ll have the balloon ascend in order to catch that wind pattern. The highest a hot air balloonist can go without supplemental oxygen is 13,000 feet.

Landing the balloon can challenge even the most experienced pilot. Derek has had a few occasions when the winds weren’t cooperating, and he’s had to make a harder landing than he wanted. He’s also had to land in some tight spaces due to power lines, trees or prohibited zones. He once landed in an easement between two houses near Shelbyville Road.

In addition to paying attention to the winds and landing obstacles, a pilot also has to pay attention to the heat of the day. Derek says the best times to fly are from sunrise to two hours into the day and two hours prior to sunset.

“These are the periods of the day when the wind is typically the calmest,” he says. As the day heats up, rising columns of hot air called thermals can make it difficult for a hot air balloon to fly and land.

Derek and Jessie recall an incident when two of their three children were in the balloon with Derek, and a thermal arose.

“It looked like it was going to be a great day,” he says. “All of a sudden, you could feel a breeze. The basket and the envelope were going in opposite directions.”

Hot air ballooning is a family activity for the Brownings. Each of their children has a specific job that they do. The oldest, Spencer, holds the rope to stabilize the crown of the envelope during inflation. Aubrianna, their middle child, works with her mom to get the envelope, which weighs about 235 pounds, out of the trailer, and she is also in charge of the straps that hold the envelope when it is put away. The youngest child, Allie, helps make the connections between the basket and the envelope.

“Wherever we’ve landed, she also plays with any animal in the vicinity,” Jessie says.

The family often travels to ballooning events. Since 2014, Derek has participated in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which is also an opportunity to visit Jessie’s family. They travel to Ohio, Tennessee and other regional locations up to 10 times a year.

Derek is a member of the Balloon Society of Kentucky (BSOK). In the summer, members of the organization get together one evening a week to fly. It is a little competition they have whereby they keep points and can earn a pot of money that everyone who flies can contribute to. Some members of the organization sell flights to the public, while others sell sponsorships to local businesses, which involves putting a banner on the balloon for what is essentially a flying billboard.

The next time you’re out on your deck or driving around and you notice hot air balloons in the distance, maybe one of them is your Jeffersontown neighbor, Derek Browning, doing what he has loved for the past 39 years. Give him a wave or, even better a helping hand if he lands nearby.

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