You can’t miss the growth and development in the East Valley — especially from the air.
And that growth is an issue for local hot-air balloon pilots, forcing some out of ballooning, others to fly in remote areas, and some to embrace its challenges.
“All in all, we like open spaces, and there is a lot less than there used to be,” said Scott Nicol, owner of Mesa-based Roping the Wind Hot Air Balloon Co. “You have to learn to fly in more congested areas.”
Nicol, flying for more than 20 years, said many hot-air balloon pilots don’t fly in the Gilbert-Chandler area anymore or have left ballooning altogether because growth makes it more complicated to take off and land. Also, open desert is a lot more appealing to look at from the air, some pilots say.
Sport balloons are able to fly in more growth-congested areas because they are smaller, carrying two or three people, and need less room to launch and land, Nicol said.
“When we used to fly out here 15 years ago it was just all open farm fields — you could almost land anywhere,” Nicol said. “Now with all the new home developments going in we have less and less landing sites. It’s a bit more challenging.”
But in Nicol’s case, the limited space is something he’s leaned to cope with. “It makes you a better pilot,” he said.
Nicol flies primarily in the East Valley with Gold Canyon and Apache Junction topping his list of favorite locales. He also flies in Gilbert, Chandler and Queen Creek/Johnson Ranch areas.
Because of the growth, he finds it more difficult to land and launch in more typical spots such a fields and now uses “nontraditional” landing sites such as parks, cul-de-sacs, retention basins and green belts.
He said Queen Creek and nearby Johnson Ranch is a “prime area for ballooning,” but it’s a long way for some pilots to go. And even those areas will go the way of boom areas of the East Valley, he said.
“It’s developing pretty quickly, and it’s going to start exploding even more,” Nicol said.
Hot-air balloon pilot Glen Buckles used to launch frequently in Chandler.
“When we first started here, there was nothing here at all, it’s just amazing,” he said of the East Valley’s growth. “We used to fly right up the street at Willis Junior High (in Chandler), and that was the middle of nowhere at the time. That was our launch area for years, but now it’s just surrounded by homes.”
Buckles said navigating the growth takes a “very good pilot.” But even with good pilots, larger-capacity passenger balloon companies can’t cope with the growth as well.
Pilot Brian Holmes owns the Hot Air Balloon Co., which frequents the north Valley near northeast Phoenix and Scottsdale. He operates larger passenger balloons carrying from four to 16 passengers and pays for a permit to launch and land at a State Trust Land parcel just north of the Valley.
“Traditionally, balloons have been flying in this area for 25 to 30 years now,” said Holmes, in the business since 1983. “It was just us and the coyotes and jack rabbits. We’re always looking for large, unpopulated areas because of the fact that we’re big and we need larger launch and landing sites.”
Holmes said the larger balloons aren’t suited for flying in neighborhoods, and in many areas of the Valley parks are off-limits to balloonists. He’s also concerned about continued access to State Trust Land because “they are selling off big chunks to developers — the land is shrinking,” he said.
“As we lose these launch and landing sites, we’ve been altering our flight patterns, but you can only do so much because we go with the wind,” Holmes said. “While we’re somewhat able to accommodate that, it isn’t as precise as having a steering wheel. You can always choose your launch site, but it’s a little more difficult to choose your landing site.”
Growth causes balloon enthusiasts to move farther out from metropolitan areas and may even cause hot-air balloon companies to chose smaller balloons and fly over urban areas — an option that isn’t as cost-effective, Holmes said.
“This is a pretty unique way to see the Sonoran Desert,” Holmes said. “We’re fortunate to still have some pieces to fly over.”