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Richard Parr, Hot Air Balloon Pilot

Updated: Apr 19

How many people can call themselves a hot air balloon pilot? Not many. Richard Parr of Pittsboro, North Carolina has been flying planes, balloons, and gliders for 55 years, and he doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon. We found Richard and his friend John sitting in camp chairs next to their truck at the Carolina BalloonFest in Statesville. The annual October festival began in 1974 and each year it draws thousands of spectators to watch the launch of dozens of balloons. After 41 consecutive years, the festival holds the record for being the second longest-held hot air balloon event in the United States. The festival has events for three days, including a spectacular Saturday night balloon glow. Each morning pilots fly their balloons into the festival, and in the evening they launch again to fly out of the festival. Gina and I made it to the final launch on Sunday to watch balloons fly out of the festival.

Although we started to feel a bit antsy waiting in the grass for the balloons to appear, it was well worth it to stick around and watch such a magical show. Plus, meeting Richard meant we had an insider’s look at what goes into flying a hot air balloon. When we asked why Richard flies hot air balloons, he gave a simple answer: it’s fun. He gave us some advice that everyone should hear: do what you like. He stressed how important it is to find something we enjoy because we will have fun doing it and it will make us happy. These are wise words worth remembering from a man who has clearly found his passion. He likes to be in the sky, flying toward the clouds, and he enjoys the challenge of navigating in changing air conditions, which can often prove very difficult. Richard explained that balloons are only flown in the morning and evening because wind conditions are more predictable during those times of the day. Pilots are given wind conditions for the day and steer according to the information available to them. Richard always has a print-out of the day’s wind conditions, but sometimes he uses his iPad to see the exact wind conditions when he is in the sky. Richard has two balloons, one for competition and one for passengers, and he flies them in Michigan, Indiana, Texas, and North Carolina. He participates in competitions in which balloon pilots are given a map marked with specific targets. The goal of one of the competitions is to fly in from at least one mile away and drop a small marker on the target. In another competition, pilots are given an area on a map to drop their marker and they must calculate the furthest point from the center. Once they find this point, they must drop their marker so that it is on the edge of the given area, but not outside of it. It sounds complicated, but Richard loves the challenge.

The average hot air balloon is eight stories tall and typically flies at a maximum altitude of 2,000 feet, but Richard has braved heights of 11,000 feet in his balloons. Imagine standing in a hilly field on a beautiful sunny day, surrounded by giant balloons being inflated and taking off one by one. That’s exactly what we got to do at the BalloonFest. Wicker baskets were scattered in the grass, standing as tall as my shoulders, and pressurized fire was being blown into multi-colored balloons. The balloons came in all different colors, and some were even shaped like animals. There was a giant pink flying pig, an owl, and a cat. In the field, the balloons were at all different stages of the preparation process. Some were just being unfolded and laid on the ground; others were nearly ready to take off with pilots and passengers. Every time we turned around, there was another balloon flying away that was laying flat on the ground like a tarp or just half-inflated when we last saw it.

Although we spoke to Richard well before the hot air balloons took flight, we saw him again when all the pilots and their crews were preparing their balloons for the final launch of the weekend. His words about finding something fun that we love to do came to mind when I saw him standing in his wicker basket talking to his crewmembers as his balloon inflated. He looked absolutely ecstatic to be at the Carolina Balloon Fest with his friends, doing what he loves.

Richard was a true example of someone who follows his passions and focuses on doing what he enjoys. Seeing him so happy before the last launch of the weekend left a lasting impression on me that I hope I will always remember, along with his advice to do what I enjoy.

Need a lift? Visit Richard Parr’s ballooning company, Mystic Venture, to book a ride.

--Katie Stewart



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