This feeling is exactly what drew Carrollton’s Tim Billingsley to the sport of hot air ballooning nearly 30 years ago, despite the fact that he has a fear of heights severe enough to cause him to go weak in the knees on a visit to Chicago’s Seasr Tower when he looked out the building’s windows. Watching his calm demeanor as he pilots a hot air balloon more than 3,000 feet over Carroll County, one would never know he had this fear if it didn’t come up in conversation.
“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world the first time I did it,” he said. “I didn’t even realize the height. It’s comforting, quiet and you have a 360-degree view.”
Interestingly, Chad Myers, a hot air balloon pilot in training who often works on Billingsley’s crew, is also afraid of heights. In fact, he said he can’t climb to the top of a step ladder, but he has no problem going go up in a hot air balloon.
“I just love the experience of flight,” he said. “Instead of the balloon rising, it feels like the earth is falling out from beneath you. It’s just a different sensation.”
After seeing some hot air balloons take off near his home, Myers started out as a crew member for Billingsley. After watching his mentor fly, he believed he could do it too. He was hooked after that first flight and has since been working toward his pilot’s license.
“The first time I saw a hot air balloon it was taking off from a soccer field by my house,” he said. “Actually, it was an ugly take off, but it looked pretty amazing to me.”
Billingsley’s first experience was similar. After watching others fly, he began working on a hot air balloon crew in the early 1980s. Eventually, the pilot took him up for a ride and he’s been doing it ever since.
“I’d been helping for so long and hearing everybody else talk about the experience I figured I’ve got to try it,” he said. “I did and I loved it.”
Just a few years after that first flight, Billingsley and his wife, Jorie, were married in a hot air balloon. When he first met her she had never flown in a hot air balloon, but now she serves as his crew chief.
“That was my pick-up line,” he said. “I asked her if she wanted to go up in one and she said, ‘Cool, let’s do it.’”
Billingsley’s first flight led him to work toward, and eventually receive, a private pilot’s license, which he followed up with a commercial license so he could make money taking others up to help pay for his hobby. He now makes about 35 flights a year, including competitions, promotions, pleasure flights and instructional flights.
“A lot of people fly a lot more than I do,” he said. “I wish I could fly more, but that’s about it.”
Though most of his flights take place in and around Carroll County, Billingsley has flown balloons in such places as the Great Smoky Mountains and The Ozarks. His favorite flight was a trip down the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico at a height of 700 feet with rising cliffs on either side of the balloon.
“It was just amazing,” he said.
Hot air balloons fly easily at heights of several thousand feet and Billingsley doesn’t mind flying at those altitudes, but his most enjoyable flights are those just above the treetops where he can wave to people on the ground and hold short conversations with them as he floats by in his balloon at a speed that barely cracks double digits in terms of miles per hour. He also enjoys the navigational aspect of hot air balloon competitions.
Though he’s comfortable flying in his hot air balloon and believes they are safer than most forms of transportation, Billingsley takes his responsibility as a pilot very seriously. He only flies when the weather is nearly perfect early in the morning and late in the evening and thus far has never had an accident or had to cut a flight short because of a mishap.
“It’s a very safe sport if you pay attention and don’t do anything stupid,” he said.
Anyone interested in flying with Tim Billingsley can reach him at 770-836-8832.