The president and pilot of a hot-air ballon firm tells how he is using technology, both aloft and on the ground.
When I was 7 years old, in 1973, my father bought the first of several hot-air balloons that would come to reside in our family's garage. He transported the craft, emblazoned with advertising for his portable light-manufacturing business, to trade shows around the country. In the early '80s he started offering passenger rides as well, and Aeronautical Adventures, based in Kansas City, was born. I have been chief pilot and president of the company since my father died, in 1990.
About 75% of Aeronautical Adventures' revenues come from advertising and sightseeing trips, but we also make money by competing in balloon races. The goal is to navigate a course or to land at a designated spot at a designated time. Accuracy counts more than speed, and the only way to be accurate when you're floating thousands of feet above the ground at the mercy of changeable winds is to use technology.
So several years ago we bought a hand-held global positioning system (GPS) for a few hundred dollars from Garmin International. Called the GPS 45 Personal Navigator, the unit, which weighs less than a pound, has a MultiTrac8 receiver that uses up to eight satellites simultaneously. It allows the pilot to pinpoint his position within several inches on a map and indicates what direction the craft is headed in, how fast it's going, and how long it will take to reach its destination. Every few minutes the system records altitude and wind speed--information that is needed to make adjustments during the flight.
Knowing wind conditions before you're aloft is at least as important as knowing them once you're airborne. For that we launch weather balloons. Someone on the ground tracks the balloons with a sighting instrument at various altitudes and time intervals and then feeds the data into an Acer laptop, which runs a customized math program, to get wind speed and directional information. The company has a Pentium 166 in the office, too, on which we've installed Microsoft Access, which we use to track passengers and inventory.
Six months ago we began using the World Wide Web to branch into retail sales. In addition to marketing rides, our Web site offers all things balloon-ish, from books and jewelry to the aircraft themselves. Recently we added an on-line marketplace for new and used balloons and equipment so that buyers and sellers could meet in one place and perform transactions. No matter how successful our forays on-line, however, I'll always spend far more time in the air than in cyberspace. I'd rather fly than surf anytime.