Balloon Fiesta is celebrating its 30thSpecial Shape Rodeo and Trudy DeGraff, a former Air Force pilot, is one of the many special shape pilots.
In this month’s Inside the Basket, Trudy showcases her love for being in the air, as well as how she got her special shape start.
1. Give a brief overview of your background and how you became involved with Balloon Fiesta.
I’m a retired Air Force pilot. I flew LC-130H ski-equipped aircraft to the Arctic and Antarctic for most of my career. Then I flew the chase aircraft for NASA’s high-altitude helium balloon program. My first experience at Balloon Fiesta was in 1983 as a spectator. I finally made it back to Albuquerque in 1993 and crewed for the Japanese Special Shape “Dog Teams” of Beloved Arrow and Aska’s Balloon (Labrador Retrievers). I was hooked and returned to crew with them for the next 4 years.
2. What is the current balloon that you pilot and what is your favorite part about piloting that balloon?
I “designed” and bought my own special shape “Cutie Dink” in May 1998. He just turned 20 years old and I’m happy to say that I’m still flying him as often as possible. Since he is a small balloon (special shape, appendage balloon), I have been able to fly at numerous rallies around the country, in Canada, Mexico and Japan. My favorite part of “Cutie Dink” is sharing him with all the new friends I have met wherever I take him. Ballooning is a sport that you can’t do alone and you always draw a crowd.
3. How did you begin piloting a special shape balloon?
Having flown my whole career, I didn’t want to ever stop. Unfortunately, owning an aircraft wasn’t in the cards for me. But, a balloon – that was an affordable way to stay in the air! I started to think about a design and color scheme for it. Every year that I crewed for Beloved Arrow at Balloon Fiesta, the Japanese owners would present me with a small thank you gift. At the end of Fiesta 1997, that gift was a Maneki Neko, the Japanese happiness cat. As soon as I saw it, I knew that’s what my balloon was going to be patterned after. Since I was living in New York at the time, it took a few months to get everything together. I came out to Albuquerque for the 1998 AAAA Friends and Lovers Rally and spent some time with Barbara Fricke learning about the different balloon manufacturers, system designs and meeting some of the sales representatives. By March, the manufacturer was chosen (Aerostar), the design was finalized and Dink was on his way to becoming a reality. I came back to Albuquerque on May 15, 1998 to take delivery and started my flight training the next day.
4. What is your favorite part about participating in Balloon Fiesta?
My first Balloon Fiesta as a pilot was 1998. Even though I had crewed at Balloon Fiesta for 5 years, I met so many more, new people. Since then it has become a great place to catch up with friends from around the world. It’s nine days of excitement, fun and comradery. And, it gives us a chance to showcase the sport of ballooning.
5. What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about becoming a special-shape balloon pilot?
My advice is to get some experience crewing for a few different special shape balloons. See how and where they fly. That way, you can make a good decision on whether to choose a small shape like “Dink”, or go for a larger, more elaborate design like Airabelle - the Creamland Cow, or ¢ent’r Stage - the Wells Fargo Stagecoach. Whatever your decision, start now!