America's Challenge Updates
Inside the Basket - J.J. Mancini, First-year Balloon Fiesta pilot
September 16, 2019
J.J. Mancini will experience his first Balloon Fiesta as a pilot this year. Becoming a pilot and participating in Balloon Fiesta is something that he has looked forward to for quite some time.
In this month’s Inside the Basket, we’ll explore how J.J. got his ballooning start and what he is looking forward to most at this year’s event.
1. Give a brief overview of your ballooning background.
I have lived in Albuquerque ever since the 4th grade and have been attending Balloon Fiesta almost every year since. But I had never been in a balloon until I got engaged to my fiance (now wife), and we were lucky enough to have been given a ride in a hot air balloon during Balloon Fiesta in 2012! Well, we were hooked! The spectacular weightlessness, the slow descents & ascents while riding on waves of air, was a whimsical experience where neither my wife nor I could wipe the smiles off of our faces. I knew then that becoming a hot air balloon pilot was a dream. When the end of 2018 rolled around, I was lucky enough to have some extra time after selling my business. In November 2018, I became a student of the famous Elizabeth Wright-Smith (she flys the Wells Fargo Stage Coach), one of the premier balloon pilot trainers out there. We also took the plunge and purchased a beautiful Hot Air Balloon that we aptly named Mr. Sprinkles. Mr. Sprinkles is named for the popular sundae topping, sprinkles! The colorful ribbons that wrap the balloon are reminiscent of the proper way to coat vanilla ice cream with a solid layer of tasty sprinkles. Although tempting, please refrain from licking our balloon. You can identify Mr. Sprinkles by looking for the bulbous shape created by the 8 gores (vertical lines). This creates a very unique and classic look. Most balloons have a smoother shape with more gores. If, while looking at a balloon, your sweet-tooth starts to ache or your tummy grumbles, chances are it’s Mr. Sprinkles. Next time you hear the ice cream truck coming down the street, you might want to look up.
2. How long have you been a balloon pilot?
I officially became a pilot on January 3, 2019. So I have only been flying for about eight months. But we try to spend every opportunity that we can, flying. Although I've only been flying for less than a year, we have done surprisingly well! We entered the Rio Grande Classic which is one of the largest competitive hot air ballooning events in the southwest and is also the New Mexico state championship. With lots of luck and help from many of the fellow contestants and pilots, Mr. Sprinkles and crew actually won the New Mexico State Championship! I know! We were shocked too.
3. What is your favoirte thing about being a balloon pilot?
There is nothing that brings people together better than experiencing and accomplishing an amazing task together. And the truth is, every time a hot air balloon takes flight and then lands safely, really is a wonderfully amazing experience; whether on the ground chasing the balloon apart of the crew or in the air. So, the experience of doing something so unique and fantastical with a strong element of adventure really lifts the soul and brings people together in a way that I have never seen before. And you just simply can't beat that feeling.
4. With this being your first year to fly at Balloon Fiesta, what are you most looking forward to?
First of all, I am so excited to be a part of Balloon Fiesta 2019. So I am excited about every little part of it! But, I am most looking forward to that first lift-off with hundreds of other balloons! Experiencing it from the ground so many times over the years, I am excited to finally be a part of the magic. Also, we have yet to participate in a glow, so I am very excited about participating in the glows. We think our balloon will be pretty stunning when it lights up at night.
5.What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about becoming a pilot?
Train with the best. There is so much to learn in ballooning and so many nuances to style and safety. With Elizabeth Wright-Smith, she distills down her thousands of hours of experience into actionable, repeatable, steps so that when you do become a pilot, you don't have to learn the hard way, and instead benefit from the experience of others. Beth truly is a giant among trainers and anyone would be lucky to have her as their instructor. Don't take a short-cut, ballooning is hard enough as it is.