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Rick Hughlett pilots his own hot air balloon, which holds three people and a pilot. He often donates flights to local nonprofits.
Rick Hughlett pilots his own hot air balloon, which holds three people and a pilot. He often donates flights to local nonprofits.

After 5: Going Up?

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Rick Hughlett’s hobby is another man’s once in a lifetime experience.

The Rick’s Automotive Inc. owner also owns a 90,000-cubic-foot hot air balloon and holds private and commercial pilot’s licenses. When the weather’s right – which for Hughlett, means between 45 degrees and 85 degrees with a wind below nine knots, or roughly 10.5 miles an hour – he tries to get out and up, he says.

“This is so much more weather-dependent than any other sport,” Hughlett says. “There has to be no precipitation, and if there’s a thunderstorm within a hundred miles, it’s kind of a rule that you don’t fly.”

The majority of time he’s up in the air, Hughlett is donating his piloting skills to nonprofits such as the Breast Care Foundation of the Ozarks, Make-a-Wish Foundation and Pregnancy Care Center, which use the rides for fundraising.

“The first thing you notice is that you can hear things on the ground so well … we’ll have conversations with people who are out on their decks having their morning coffee,” he says.
“The fun is just above tree level when you can visit with people, look at all the homes, see deer and turkey and hawks on the ground.”

The most common misperception about hot air balloons is that they take off and land in the same place, he says. “You don’t. You pick a good field to come down in and hover there while you have your chase crew go to the landowner and ask if it’s OK to land here,” he says.

Hughlett’s crew – which often includes wife Karen and one or two others – can usually set up the balloon in 30 minutes. The balloon’s basket holds three people and a pilot, he says, and depending on how many people he’s taking, a crewmember may come along for the ride. At least one crewmember follows in a chase car, with communication via cell phone and radio.

Hughlett’s introduction to ballooning came from Jim Herschend, president of McMinnville, Tenn.-based Cumberland Caverns and son of Herschend Family Entertainment co-founder Jack Herschend.

Jim Herschend started ballooning when he was 9, when he rode in a hot air balloon launched inside of Marvel Cave at Silver Dollar City.

“That was an experiment, but we’ve had three other hot air balloon adventures in Marvel Cave since,” he says, noting one of those adventures set an underground altitude record, another set a record for number of balloons in a cave – there were five – and one allowed them to explore a passageway in the cave’s cathedral room that nobody had been inside before because of its height. Herschend says he piloted the balloon up to the passageway while his brother Bruce stood on top of the balloon to reach the entrance.

Now, Herschend has more than 3,000 hours logged as a pilot. He’s flown competitively, having flown three times in the international race Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett and earning a bronze medal in the 2001 Fédération Aéronautique Internationale’s World Air Games. Closer to home, he was a commercial pilot, flying for companies such as Bass Pro Shops and Alltel.

For Hughlett and Herschend, the end experience is worth the time, effort and expense.

Hughlett says someone may be able to get into ballooning for $15,000 to $20,000 for a used balloon, but it’s more reasonable to expect initial costs of $30,000 and up.

“You meet fascinating people everywhere you land,” Herschend says. “You just don’t see somebody looking up at a balloon without a smile on their face.”[[In-content Ad]]

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