Bobby Bradley is ready. He has been training for about five years and learned from some of the most experienced and decorated pilots in the sport of ballooning.
But he’ll be making his own mark on the sport when he lifts off from a desolate patch of New Mexico desert in about seven weeks: At 9 years old, Bobby will become the youngest trained pilot to fly solo in an ultra-light hot air balloon.
So is he excited? “Definitely,” he says.
Worried? “Not at all,” he says.
“I’ve been flying since I was 4, so I’ve had a lot of time to train and I’ve always wanted to solo,” Bobby said during an interview with The Associated Press.
For some, the feat may conjure up the dramatic televised images from 2009, when a runaway silver balloon flew uncontrollably over Colorado amid fears that a little boy was inside. That boy was actually hiding in the family’s garage; his parents were later accused of staging a hoax.
Bobby is the real deal. He’s the son of well-known balloonists Troy and Tami Bradley of Albuquerque.
Both have been licensed pilots since they were teenagers and come from families immersed in the ballooning community for decades.
In 1998, Troy and Tami Bradley won the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, one of the country’s biggest events in balloon racing. Six years earlier, Troy Bradley and Richard Abruzzo piloted the first balloon to fly from North America to Africa.
In all, Troy Bradley has set nearly five dozen world records in ballooning and has logged thousands of hours of pilot time. He’s also the president of the Balloon Federation of America.
So is it in Bobby’s blood? His parents think so, but they have been careful not to pressure him or his 11-year-old sister, Savannah, who would rather leave the piloting to Bobby.
“Truthfully, this is his idea,” Troy Bradley said. “He’s just so gung-ho about flying and everything. It’s kind of funny because when he was real little, he was like every other kid, the burners scared him.”
That turned around when Bobby was about 4. His dad gave him control of the burner and he began to understand where that loud roaring sound was coming from.
“I can’t get him out of the basket now,” the elder Bradley said.
Bobby has about 25 hours of flight time with his father in a standard hot air balloon. His father can tell him where he wants to go, and Bobby responds by either making the balloon climb or finding the right pattern of wind to shift course. And he’s always watching for poles, a good indication he says of whether any power lines are strung in the area.
Bobby can’t get his pilot’s license until he’s 16, but he will be able to fly on his own now since his balloon will be classified as an ultra-light aircraft. His dad made his first solo flight when he was 14 and earned his license at 16. His mother earned her license at 17.
Bobby has managed to pick up tips from the pros by tagging along with his dad to conferences and seminars on balloon safety. The pair just returned from the Balloon Federation of America’s national convention in Iowa.
“He’s grown up around it so he understands the dangers that are involved,” his father said, referring to the deaths last year of fellow pilots Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis during a European gas balloon race.
The Bradley family knew the two pilots, and Bobby was hit hard by their deaths, his father said.
“It really plays on his mind,” he said. “He’s very conscious of the weather and making sure that you’re not flying in the wrong situation.”
In preparation for his solo flight, the family – with help from others in the balloon community – has been busy building a special ultra-light balloon complete with a light-weight gondola and a 900-cubic-meter envelope that will be decorated with tie-dye fractals.
Troy Bradley and a crew of volunteers took direction from fractal expert Jonathan Wolfe on Wednesday at the Albuquerque Balloon Museum as he started the spiralling process so that part of the balloon’s 180 meters of parachute-like material could be dyed.
It required a couple of jugs of seaweed-based slime, slipping around on bare feet and squeegees.
“It’s an intimate process,” Wolfe said. “Every single square inch of the thing goes through my fingers as I form the pleats.”
Wolfe said he was excited when Bobby and his father came to him with the idea for designing the balloon.
“The idea that a 9-year-old could build and fly a balloon, it’s just hugely inspiring,” he said.
Once the balloon is dyed, the sewing is finished and the gondola and burner are attached, Bobby will have some tethered practice time on the balloon to see how it handles compared to the standard balloon he’s used to flying with his father.
Like his son, Troy Bradley is somewhat nonchalant about the intricacies of piloting a balloon. It comes natural to them.
“Like I tell everyone, it’s not rocket science,” the elder Bradley said. “You heat the air. You let the balloon go up. You let it cool and come down. It’s learning to do it with some precision, and that’s the amazing thing, he has such a great feel for it. He’s got the ability so why not allow him to do it?”