Victoria Erhart



New Mexico’s Albuquerque International Balloon Festival is known around the world. Another, lesser-known opportunity is the almost silent experience of ballooning over the canyons and arroyos north of Española. Floating across a landscape absent of human habitation, separated by the thinnest of membranes from the birds, rabbits and coyotes witnessing the flight, is a meaningful and memorable experience.


Ballooning was invented in the 18th century. Johnny Lewis, owner of Santa Fe Balloons, has been around since the beginnings of modern recreational ballooning in the mid-1960s, and has taken people over the graced landscape of northern New Mexico for many years. Traveling at a stately 7-8 mph, balloon riders take in incomparable views and gain appreciation for the austere and fragile beauty of the high desert without leaving a single footprint. Hot-air ballooning is environmentally friendly and about 10 percent the cost of keeping a helium balloon afloat.


Johnny has certainly progressed from his simple, small homemade balloons in the 1960s to the $65,000 rigs he flies today. The balloon itself weighs 300 pounds. When fully inflated it expands to 120,000 cubic feet, as tall as a 9-story building. It is first laid out on the ground and filled with air, using large fans run off a portable generator. Once it is sufficiently inflated, a propane burner attached to the top of the gondola basket heats the air and allows the riders to ascend and stay afloat. Each 90-minute trip requires a load of 50 gallons of propane in the gondola tanks, with the FAA-mandatory one-third load of fuel remaining upon landing.


Johnny considers himself more than just a balloon jockey. As he sees it, his job is “to make people’s wishes come true using a balloon.” He tells the story of taking a blind teenaged girl up for a ride. In order to give her the sense of flight, he deliberately elevated and sank the balloon much faster than on a normal flight and brushed the gondola against vegetation near the ground so she could hear and feel the movements. Once back on the ground, Johnny asked her what else he could do to make her day special. At sixteen, the girl’s friends were learning to drive. Not an option for her. Yet she told Johnny, “I want to drive.” Looking around at the unused dirt road where the chase truck was parked, surrounded by acres of scrub vegetation and gullies, he thought, “What’s to hurt?” So with the girl in the driver’s seat and Johnny riding shotgun, off they drove through gullies and over rocks, whooping and honking the horn. Circling the truck back around to her waiting parents, Johnny ducked out of sight. The girl turned her face towards her parents and waved her arm outside the driver’s window as they drove past. Her proud papa took her picture. Her mother cried. Clearly, balloon rides give rise to increased imagination.


Johnny and Santa Fe Balloons fly from May through October (weather and wind conditions permitting). Winds are calmest at sunrise, so riders need to be at the launch site to meet the dawn. Additional information is available from the company’s website: or by phone: 505.699.7555.



Victoria Erhart, a freelance writer and would-be farmer in the Nambé Valley, writes on topics pertaining to spirituality, sustainable lifestyles and companion animal welfare issues. She teaches business technology courses at UNM–Los Alamos.




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