Fox Cities residents are fortunate to live amongst a remarkable number of balloon pilots. The area is home to Fox Valley Ballooning, a social group of eight balloon pilots, and a few hot air balloon ride companies, including Bums in Paradise, owned by Tom Wittman. While the pilots all come from separate backgrounds, they are connected by their love for this free-floating form of aviation.
Jeff Trzebiatowski of Appleton is one of the early members of Fox Valley Ballooning. Originally from the Washington County area, where Trzebiatowski boasts ballooning took off as early as 1902, he fostered a childhood fascination for balloons. Throughout high school and college, he crewed flights for local pilots. Shortly after college graduation, Trzebiatowski moved to Appleton, where he crewed for another pilot who taught him to fly.
“Most of us started as crew members for pilots and then became pilots ourselves,” says Trzebiatowski.
After acquiring his commercial license in 2000, he purchased his own balloon, a 77,000 cubic foot beauty named Midnight Rainbow. Now an active member of Fox Valley Ballooning, he has also trained two pilots and continues to organize group meetings and events.
John Ross is another founding member of Fox Valley Ballooning. Ross began his ballooning career later in life after retiring from the U.S. Navy. He began crewing with a friend in 1992. After crewing for eight years, he acquired his license and bought a balloon. Since then, he has acquired his commercial license, started a hot air balloon ride company called “FUN”tastic Ballooning, become an active member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, donated his time to school programs and enjoyed annual activities with the club.
Ross is what is known as a Fiesta pilot. Fiesta pilots spend their time traveling from festival to festival with their balloons. In his retirement, Ross has travelled to balloon festivals all over the world. He has flown in Albuquerque, N.M.; Quebec, Canada; and Leon, Mexico as well as flights in Ireland, Germany and New Zealand. Though he is widely travelled, his home base remains here in Appleton.
“The community in the Fox Valley is wonderful. People are very welcoming,” says Ross.
Nathan Dieringer, a relatively new member of the club, moved to the Appleton area six years ago. He joined the club after reconnecting with a pilot he knew from his youth in Austin, Texas.
Dieringer has been around hot air balloons since birth. His father began flying balloons in the 1970s and continued until Nathan was 16. Nathan Dieringer’s first flight in a balloon took place at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta when he was just 6 years old. At 16, Dieringer began crewing for local pilots and working toward his own pilot’s license. He now owns two working balloons: Austin, a balloon dedicated to those who influenced his piloting life, and Teddy, a bargain purchase which features a giant, admittedly ugly, teddy bear.
Since moving to the Fox Cities, Dieringer has discovered the joys of winter flying. “Beside being freezing cold, flying in winter is awesome. You can fly longer, use less fuel, and land just about anywhere. The air is also more stable. My first time on a frozen lake was landing a balloon on Lake Winnebago,” he says.
Dieringer also appreciates how open the local pilots are to new people. “There is no such thing as a stranger to these guys. They love to see new faces,” he says.
The club is very casual, but its members delight in being actively involved in the community. Ross initiated the club’s participation in the annual Appleton Downtown Christmas Parade. “No place else in the county can you see 10 baskets all lit up on a trailer providing heat in the cold,” says Ross.
Weather and schedules permitting, the club members also try to fly together as often as possible. “We’re all friends. We’re all there to help and support each other. It’s always more fun to do it together,” says Trzebiatowski.
On the commercial side of the sport is Tom Wittman, owner of Bums in Paradise and self-proclaimed aeronaut. Wittman began his aviation career as a commercial airline pilot. Throughout his career, he picked up additional certifications for other modes of flight. In 1999, he spent two weeks in Albuquerque earning his air ballooning certification. Since then, he has acquired two balloons, Jordan and Freedom, and started a successful company which operates seasonally in both Northeast Wisconsin and Central Florida.
Wittman also enjoys getting out into the community and has been attending Burger Fest annually since 2001. When he’s up in his balloon he loves observing the reactions of community members. Children and adults alike wave at the balloon as it passes and cars often beep in greeting from the freeway.
After more than 40 years as an airline pilot, Wittman finds ballooning both frustrating and amazing. Frustrating because as an hot air balloon pilot he’s always trespassing, he can’t maintain a strict pilot’s regimen, and he never knows exactly where he’s going to end up. Still, says Wittman, there’s nothing quite like being up in a balloon.
“You’re drifting over the world. It’s like you’re standing still and the world is moving. It’s awe-inspiring,” he says.
So next time you see a flock of balloons drifting with the clouds, stop and appreciate this ethereal form of aviation we have so close to home. And, be sure to wave.
— By Jennifer Clausing