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How to Pack for a Hot Air Balloon Race



Cheri White is a decorated pilot of a not-so-precision aircraft. It has an engine but no wings, and there’s no landing gear. The 54-year-old Texan flies hot air balloons for a living.

A former U.S. Women’s National Hot Air Balloon champion, Ms. White has raced in 41 states and across Europe.

In her day job, she commands a fleet of five hot air balloons for Touchstone Energy Cooperatives, an alliance of 750 local electrical co-ops across 46 states. The balloons promote the brand at corporate meetings, county fairs, fundraisers and rodeos . Ms. White will operate the balloon on a tether and take attendees on short balloon rides.

“You get a lot of bucket-listers. I recently flew a lady for her 104th birthday,” she says.

May through October is the busiest ballooning season. She does a lot of driving, hauling around the equipment—basket, burners and balloon—from her home base in Austin, Tex.

Balloon baskets are handmade of wicker because it absorbs the impact of landing, she says. Propane burners heat the air inside the nylon balloon—called an envelope—and the rising hot air lifts it aloft. Ms. White also races gas balloons, which float using hydrogen gas.

In early October, Ms. White flew in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, one of the largest festivals of its kind, where over 500 balloons fill the sky.

She travels with several propane tanks and an ignition striker. She also has a helium tank and a bag of children’s party balloons. Before flying, pilots will release a handful of small balloons, called pie balls, to gauge the wind. Hot air balloons are at the mercy of wind direction. As the little balloons float away, Ms. White uses her sighting compass to measure their progress and a GPS program to strategize a flight path.

Her flight bag, which hooks onto the side of the basket, holds her Federal Aviation Administration balloon pilot’s license, a pilot’s log, hand-held radios for communicating with her chase van, an aircraft radio for communicating with local airports and a Flytec instrument to measure altitude, pressure and temperatures inside and outside the envelope. An iPad, a headlamp and a GoPro camera round out her tech gear.

“I used to fly with a quarter in my pocket so that when I’d land, I’d find a pay phone to call my crew to tell them where I was,” she recalls. These days, she can post updates to the team’s social media accounts from the air.

Ms. White wears leather work gloves for handling balloon lines, a hat for the sun and her captain’s jacket, because she’s usually flying at sunrise, when it’s chilly.

“That’s when the winds are calmest and you don’t have thermal activity,” she explains. The other good time to fly is about two hours before sunset. Midday is the worst time, she says, because the earth heats up, creating columns of hot air—called thermals—which can cause sudden, unpredictable wind currents. “Think of a dust devil,” she says.

Ms. White started learning to fly at 13, from her father. Her parents and about 30 friends had each chipped in $500 to buy a shared hot air balloon.

She says she made her first solo flight at 16, got her FAA license at 18 and bought her first balloon at age 19, for $14,500.

Ms. White worked her way through law school in Houston by giving balloon rides. In her 20s, she started competing, taking Fridays off to drive to events all over the country.

“During the week I was a corporate lawyer, and on weekends I was a balloon racer,” she recalls. “My boss would ask why I couldn’t just take a normal two-week vacation like everybody else.”

In 1993 she was named Rookie of the Year by the Balloon Federation of America, the first female to win the title. The following year, she left corporate law.

Over 15 years of running a balloon program, Ms. White has pared down her hot air balloon pantry to the essentials: chocolate, dried mango, cookies and coconut water.

In a gas balloon, cruising altitude often approaches 10,000 feet, so she needs to pack winter clothes, a sleeping bag, oxygen and a lot more food; gas races tend to last several days.

At last summer’s Gordon Bennett Cup in France, Ms. White and her co-pilot took off from the town of Pau, in the Pyrenees, and landed two days later in Poland. They slept in shifts. One of the basket’s walls has a trapdoor that opens into a shelf, allowing one person to lie down straight, feet poking out of the basket.

Ms. White says she always volunteers to fly the night shift. “I like seeing the stars. I like the peacefulness and the quiet,” she says.

In a hot air balloon though, she prefers to fly closer to earth. “At tree level, you can actually talk to people when they come out of their houses.”

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