Why I gave up being a C-level executive to offer people hot air balloon rides in Seattle. For the last six years, I worked incredibly hard. Mainly, I worked hard so that I had the opportunity to do what I love in my spare time… launching thousands of feet into the sky in my hot air balloon.
I found it interesting that it was tough to jump out of bed at 6:30 am on a workday but had no problem leaping out of bed at 4:30 am to go ballooning. My commute to work typically had me sitting in traffic for 35 minutes. I would peer out of the window up at the beautiful sunrise daydreaming of floating over the treetops. It’s funny, I have always worked for really cool companies, but when someone at a networking event would ask me what I do for a living, I would say “I am an aeronaut…I fly hot air balloons”. When you tell someone you own a hot air balloon; it’s intriguing. I remember spending time with my friend Henry the CEO of the company I worked for at the time. We were sitting on his back porch smoking cigars and drinking a glass of aged cabernet. After chatting about work for a bit I asked Henry what he did in his free time, he said: “I fly hot air balloons.” My first question was everyone’s first question, “Wait. You own a hot air balloon? How do you control it? How high can a hot air balloon go?”
“I am an aeronaut…I fly hot air balloons.”
He explained that there were 8000 total hot air balloon pilots in the world, and how balloons use the wind to control the direction of flight. He shared stories with me about skydiving out of hot air balloons in college, and his adventures in winning hot air balloon flight competitions in Europe. He was by far the most interesting man I had ever met. I wanted to have his life and be just like him. Smoking good Cuban cigars, drinking aged wine, and taking friends on the adventure of a lifetime on a hot air balloon ride. Well, there were only a few things missing from my life to make this my reality: money for good wine, money for expensive cigars, and money to buy a hot air balloon.
“Wait. You own a hot air balloon? How do you control it? Can I go?”
That summer I worked 80 hours a week, and saved enough money to buy a hot air balloon, a truck, and have enough left over to pay for my propane for the next four months. Ballooning every morning for four months was incredible. I was living my dream. When the money started to run out, it was time to get back to work. It’s hard to go ballooning if you can’t pay for propane.
That following summer I was expanding my new company to California. I met up with an old friend and joined a volleyball game on the beach. One of our teammates was a gentleman named Mike. A nice Jewish kid who, for the last decade, was a professional ski instructor at Deer Valley in Park City Utah. He had moved to San Diego to sell the finest unknown wines in the world to high net worth wine loving folks. Wait… this was Step two to becoming a luxury hot air balloon pilot. I found my wine supplier. Mike and his partners had stumbled upon some incredible small batch winemakers. When I spent time with Henry, he taught me that after you go ballooning, you should share a well-aged bottle of wine. After my first balloon flight with Henry, we drank a bottle of 1997 Silver Oak. The bottle was perfectly aged at 13 years and was his last bottle. What a wonderful gift he had given me, the ability to drink aged wine.
I was screwed. Apparently, 100 point aged bottles of wine are slightly expensive
I was screwed. Apparently, 100 point aged bottles of wine are slightly expensive. But, fortunately, I had met Mike from Quiggly Fine Wines at the right time. He was mainly selling wines from Italy from 2004, an amazing year for wine. I was in love. I bought wine by the case and tried to follow Henry’s rule. Get enough of each vintage, so you don’t drink it all the first year it's drinkable.
That brings us to Step 3: smoking fine Cigars. The summer after buying my hot air balloon, I convinced two friends of mine to travel to Cuba with me. We were on a company incentive trip to Cancun, so we bought tickets on Cubana Airlines leaving the 2nd day of the trip. And off we were. Cuba is widely known for two meticulously handcrafted items: Havana Club Rum and 5-year aged Maduro Cohiba cigars. You would think that every old man sitting on a street corner would be smoking a cigar, but the truth was they were so expensive that no one could afford them. Cigars directly from the factory were over $600 a box containing 25 cigars. The good news was that the black market in Cuba was thriving. My box of 5-year aged Maduros cost me only $70.
Finally, I had it all, the fine aged wine, delicious cigars, and a hot air balloon. The only problem that remained was that when I worked five days week from sunrise to sunset, it was hard to get ballooning time in. That’s the reason I started Seattle Ballooning, so I could do what I love every day.
Our hot air balloon ride company has grown by leaps and bounds, but I have not forgotten the basics of luxury hot air ballooning. We still purchase Prosecco from Mike to use as our post hot air balloon flight toast and have a humidor filled with Cuban cigars.
Editor's note: This post was originally published February 2015 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.