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Jan 25, 2017

Inside the Basket: Kim Vesely - Pilot and Navigator


Kim Vesely is both a pilot and a navigator for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, having dedicated her time to the event in a variety of different capacities.

Her introduction to the Balloon Fiesta came as a result of her time covering the event for KOB-TV back in the seventies. She was a young news producer assigned to cover the event because "nobody else wanted to get up that early." Her path to becoming a pilot is whole other story that you'll want to read about in this month's Inside the Basket.

Give a brief overview of your background and how you became involved with Balloon Fiesta.

In 1975 I was working as a news producer for KOB-TV and wound up covering the Balloon Fiesta because, as I recall, nobody else wanted to get up that early.  I'd been to a couple of balloon rallies before and was just in awe.  Over the next three years or so I did a lot of stories on Balloon Fiesta, but it wasn't until 1977 a couple of things happened that nudged me over the line from awed spectator to balloonatic.  I'd been fascinated by Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson's transatlantic balloon flight, and met them doing a story on flying balloons over the Sandia Mountains (NOT part of Balloon Fiesta!).  I wound up with a friend of theirs in a balloon over Sandia Crest, and to this day it's one of my most memorable flights.  I was hooked.  Also that year, in conversing with John Davis at the Balloon Fiesta, I asked about his ballooning life the rest of the year.  He said, "We fly every weekend!  Come on out and join us!"  I did.  And started crewing.  And volunteering.  And flying.  And somehow, 40 years later, I'm still doing it.  Who knew?

What inspired you to become a pilot?

Actually, it was as a result of kind of a scary experience early in my ballooning life.  I was a passenger on a windy day and when we hit the ground on landing the impact threw the pilot out over the side of the basket.  To make a long story short, we got her back inside and it all ended well.  But it convinced me that if I was going to hang around ballooning on a regular basis I should at least learn enough to be able to land a balloon in an emergency.  I was lucky that the several pilots I crewed for were a very generous lot, and they started teaching me.  I found out I really enjoyed flying, and I am incredibly grateful to all of them to this day.   

Describe what the experience has been like as a pilot?

As a balloonist, you go places you never thought you'd go and experience them in ways that you never would have imagined.  Balloon flights are truly journeys without destinations -- you take off, and never know for sure where you're going to land or who you're going to meet once you get there.  Flying in the Balloon Fiesta, of course, is an experience like no other -- at the same time intense and breathtaking (think driving on a freeway in rush hour but in three dimensions!).  But the greatest reward has been the people I've come to know through the sport.  Getting to take people up and see the joy in their faces as they experience balloon flight.  The members of the ballooning family -- pilots, crew, and others -- from all walks of life that I'd never have gotten to know otherwise.  Some of them are to this day among my dearest friends.   

How else have you been involved with Balloon Fiesta?

Way back when, I was a launch director for three years, and served a couple of years on the Balloon Fiesta Board of Directors.  But not surprisingly, most of my involvement is in some way related to writing and the media, since that's much of my professional background.  I've been on the Heritage Committee since the late 1990's and co-authored both of the books published by the committee (we're starting to talk about a third book).  Back in the '80s the Balloon Fiesta put out a daily newsletter which I co-wrote and co-edited.  Since 2002 I've been coordinating (and often writing) the articles that appear in the Balloon Fiesta Official Program, and have also been involved with the America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race, writing the updates that come from the Command Center and acting as its media liaison.  I've done some color commentary for TV and recently took over as the PA announcer for the America's Challenge, and occasionally help Glen Moyer, Larry Ahrens, and Art Lloyd, Jr. on the main announcers’ tower.  And occasionally I help at Media Hospitality and in other areas.

What advice can you give to visitors who have never experienced the event?

Everybody says it, but go early, go early, and then go even earlier.  It's much less stressful if you beat the traffic, enjoy a breakfast burrito or a Krispy Kreme or a funnel cake and a nice cup of coffee or cocoa, and watch the people go by until the balloons go up.  Once the balloons start to inflate chances are you'll be drawn to the special shapes – and they are amazing.  But to experience an entirely different vibe, get away from the Main Street concessions and the mobs around the shapes and wander out to the west and northwest side of the field.  It's much less crowded and much more laid back.  Take time to visit with the pilots and crews who are waiting around for their turn to inflate.  They're generally more than happy to answer questions and love sharing their sport.  And if you have time and the inclination, join a chase crew.  It's a great way to learn about ballooning, and who knows?  You might get hooked!

At least once each Balloon Fiesta, racing across the launch field to get to wherever I have to be, I just stop in my tracks, and stare at the balloons around me and drink it in – the sights, the sound, the sensation.  Take a moment and do the same.  Wow. 

Do you have a favorite balloon?

Oh, geez, this is like asking if you have a favorite child!  The short answer is my favorite balloons are all the ones I've flown, going back to the days when my friends let me fly their balloons while teaching me.  (it's a long list.)  I'll always have a special place in my heart for the balloon my dear departed husband Bob and I owned and flew in the 1980's, named “Damn I'm Good.” My stepson, who got his pilot license in 1982 as a teenager, now has balloons of his own and lets me play with them occasionally (thank you!).  Barbara Fricke and Peter Cuneo occasionally let me fly their balloons, “Sandia Sunrise II” and “Sandia Sunlite.”  Both balloons are labors of love, built by Barbara and Peter literally in their den, and I'm very grateful and so lucky to crew for and fly with them.