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Steamboat Magazine

A Day as a Balloon Pilot

08/24/2018 10:37AM ● By Alesha Damerville

Image from Kevin Fannin

By Alesha Damerville

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – A herd of 30 elk drink from the Yampa River, blue herons and sandhill cranes peacefully fly through the sky, a mama moose teaches her calf about his new surroundings – viewing the wildlife in the Yampa Valley from a hot air balloon provides spectacles like no other.

“You’re going to see the most beautiful parts of Steamboat from a different perspective than you would from an airplane, helicopter and even the gondola,” says Bud Whitehead, owner of Wild West Balloon Adventures. “People have a curiosity about the balloons – it’s on many of their bucket lists.”

Bud and his wife, Stacia Whitehead, purchased the company on January 1, 2018 from Bud’s previous employer, Wild West Balloons. He worked for the former owner for ten years, piloting balloons for eight years. 

“Flying the balloon is fun; there is no auto-pilot,” Bud says. “It’s always a challenge to fly the balloon to where you want to fly it.” 

Whitehead also cherishes the time with his passengers. “I like that I get to meet new people every day,” he says. “Often times people come to us to celebrate special events in their lives, whether it be a birthday, anniversary, proposal – we’ve even flown weddings up there. Usually, you’re around people who are super excited to be up in the balloon and happy because you are sharing a special time with them.”

On a typical morning, Whitehead studies the weather forecast for fast winds, while Stacia makes fresh-baked muffins for their passengers. 

“We hope to have different layers of wind directions as you go up in altitude,” Bud says. “You use the burner on the balloon and vent-lines to make the balloon go up and down and get in different air currents.”

There can be ground winds depending on the cloud layers picking up. “We launch pilot information balls – black balloons filled with helium known as pi-balls – to help measure the wind,” Bud says. “We watch where the pi-balls go up and take estimates at what altitude, speed and direction those smaller helium balloons are traveling so we can get a good idea of what the winds are at the exact moment of time from that exact location. It’s a rough estimation with your eyes at what altitude that pi-ball is, and how fast it’s moving. It gives a great picture of what the sky and the wind is doing.” Bud also likes to  double-check conditions with the weather station at the Steamboat Ski Area and keeps an eye on the weather radar.

Higher off the ground, at around 2,000 ft., the winds typically start to blow to the east. Normally, the winds lower on the ground blow to the north. They hope between the ground and 2,000 feet to find some of winds going to the south and some to the west, as well as pockets of no wind, where passengers can hang out and look at the view.

The balloon system lives in the back of the Whiteheads’ truck. They start the day by unloading the basket first, followed by a cart which houses the balloon. The basket is tipped over and a tarp is laid down to avoid getting dust and dirt inside of the balloon. The balloon is stretched out of the cart and attached to the basket. 

Gasoline-powered inflation fans are then added to the mix. These large fans blow 60 mph winds into the balloons, slowly filling them with cold air. The top of the balloon is attached with pulleys, but is Velcroed shut upon inflation. Once the balloon is fully inflated on the ground, the burners are turned on and the basket is flipped to sit upright on its frame. Once the balloon gets warmer, the hot air makes the balloon stand up. This whole process only takes about 20 minutes. It’s followed by a checklist and safety procedures, as well as a safety-briefing for all the passengers before the balloon is finally ready for liftoff. 

“Some people aren’t so sure they want to go up in the balloon, but once they’re up, they’re hooked. This is a beautiful valley, and there is really no other way to get the perspective you can except being in a balloon,” Bud says. Everyone is happy to have flown in a balloon once they come down. Many say it’s the highlight of their trip to Steamboat.”

For more information on Wild West Balloon Adventures, visit