From the sky, it’s about what you see and feel.
Susan Stamats has flown in 22 U.S. states as well as Mexico, France, Poland, Zimbabwe and South Africa, but she still appreciates Iowa’s “subtle grace and beauty.”
“In the morning the day is building ... and the light and the energy, and it’s just this softness that starts building,” Stamats said. “And then in the evening it’s the opposite. You have this loudness, and it starts to diminish.”
Stamats, 74, has been piloting hot air balloons in Cedar Rapids for 34 years and is the owner of Buzzard’s Glory, which she says is Iowa’s oldest hot air balloon company.
Her husband, Peter, started Buzzard’s Glory Balloon Co. in Cedar Rapids in 1974 after being turned on to the idea by a former co-worker. Susan took over the balloon company when Peter died in 2003.
The balloon company got its name from the town in Ohio where Peter’s father was born. That town, now known as New Vienna, was originally called Buzzard’s Glory, named for the buzzards that migrated there every year.
Stamats’s balloon can take up to three passengers. Customers are taken on an hour-long ride over the city of Cedar Rapids.
Launch site, flight path, altitude and final destination are weather-dependent, making each ride unique.
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As the planet’s climate changes and wind temperature and direction are less predictable, pilots can fly less often. In 2006, Stamats had more than 145 flights. Last year she flew 55 times.
During each flight Stamats tries to take a few photographs to share with her crew when she lands. When she doesn’t have a paid ride scheduled, she likes to take some of her crew members up with her.
“A couple years ago in January where we flew, it was 30 degrees and there was snow on the ground and I took people, and I really wish I could’ve taken them all so that they could’ve seen what that looked like,” Stamats said.
Balloon crews can have between three and 12 members. They stay on the ground, loading and unloading the balloon, following it in a chase vehicle — usually a truck — watching out for power lines in the pilot’s path during flight and so they can be waiting for Stamats where she lands.
That’s not the case for three of Stamats’s longtime frequent crew members — Chris Heidelbauer, Julie Nelson and Jan Rosauer — have a combined 53 years of crewing experience.
With the fuel tanks, burner, basket and balloon fabric — called the envelope — one of Stamats’s commercial balloons weighs around 875 pounds.
“The best part is knowing where she’s going to be before she gets there, standing on the ground with an ‘x’ out so she knows where to land,” crew member Chris Heidelbauer said.
Many pilots get their start by crewing. There were 13 pilots in Cedar Rapids in 1994, but because most people take up ballooning as a hobby for only a few years before leaving it behind, there are now only five.
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Heidelbauer, one of Stamats’s most recent students, is gearing up to earn his private balloon pilot license after having crewed for 15 years.
Pilots must be at least 16-years-old and take 10 hours of flight experience to earn a private license, and be 18-years-old with 35 hours for a commercial license.
A private license lets pilots fly, but with a commercial license they can charge money for rides.
Most crew members get started through a friend or family member, like Julie Nelson, another crew member, whose son began crewing in high school.
“He got me involved a year before he graduated, and then everybody went off to college and I just stayed here,” Nelson recalled.
Other crew members have been flying since before birth such as crew member Jan Rosauer’s children — Matthew Rosauer, 17, and Kristen Rosauer, 14.
And some, like Stamats, fall in love with a hot-air balloon pilot and never look back.
Up and down. But never back.
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