A balloon legacy

By Jillian Bartsch/El Inde

Patrick Nilz typically starts his morning by driving to an open field with his trailer and his crew team. They get to the field early in the morning and look up at the sky. The young, red headed Nilz notices that the sky is clear and decides to let a single balloon go up into the air. They all stand there watching for where the balloon will go. As they watch the balloon, they see it will be a perfect day for flying since the wind is blowing it the right direction.

Nilz and his team get out their equipment and begin to set up a much larger balloon than the one they let go just a little bit ago. The fan begins to start, and all of a sudden, the lump of fabric on the ground begins to form into a beautiful hot air balloon, with the design a cactus on its side.

The 22 year-old Nilz takes after his father, Patrick Nilz Sr., who was a hot air balloon pilot for many years. His father passed away a couple of years ago. His dad had seen a balloon one day and decided he wanted to do it too. Nilz’s father would always take him flying so it was something Nilz grew up around; Nilz went up in a balloon for the first time when he was just 18 days old.

An important part of every pilot’s journey is their first solo flight. Nilz didn’t even know it was his first solo flight the day he took off from the back of a farm in Tucson. He and his crew had inflated the balloon and he noticed his mom had a worried look and was pacing back and forth, but he wasn’t sure why she was freaking out. He asked his dad where they would be flying that day and his dad kind of chuckled and let him loose to fly by himself.

“It was nerve-wracking being up there at 14 years old, everyone’s staring at you and you know you can’t mess up,” said Nilz.

After Nilz went through all the steps to become a balloon pilot, he started his own ballooning company: Southern Arizona Balloon Excursions. His dad began a flying business where he would take off by Prince and the I-10 in Tucson and fly over Marana. 

Patrick Nilz’s balloon flies over the London Bridge in Lake Havasu in 2019.
During this event everyone is able to watch the balloons from the London bridge. Photograph courtesy of Patrick Nilz.

All of a sudden around 2006, things began to go downhill. A lot of the online booking software caused his family’s routine of ballooning to take a dive as they hadn’t begun a website yet. Since everyone was now able to book balloon flights using the internet, Nilz’s company was falling behind. They had gone from flying every day of the week to only being able to fly twice a week. Right after that was when his dad got sick and was diagnosed with stage four cancer. 

A year after his dad had passed, Nilz decided to focus his efforts on the ballooning website in order to increase business. He made the balloon company what it is now in order to continue his dad’s legacy.

Nilz has always had help from Rollie Little, an older gentleman who has been flying for many years, and Martha Newall, who has been crewing for Nilz’s family for many years. They have all been great friends and the two elders have helped Nilz to become the pilot he is today.

“My favorite part of flying is introducing people to the wonder of balloons, it is just something you can’t do anywhere else,” said Little, who has been flying for the past 17 years. “The feeling of being up in the air just floating in a basket is unlike anything else. It feels like you are on a cloud.”

Newall met Nilz when he was five years old while she was crewing for his father. “Big Pat was an incredible pilot in his own and I loved flying with him,” said Newall. Nilz is the same way, she said, and “he has learned from the best.’

“It’s crazy, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s a lot of work,” explained Newall, who helps with the shape balloons — a witch and a cactus.

A typical morning of a balloon event means Newall starts to set up some equipment while Nilz is at the pilots briefing. Newall waits for Nilz to get back to the balloon (since they never know if they will be taking off from the site they are on or not). Each of the crew members does a specific task and works together to make sure the balloon goes up perfectly. 

When it is ready for takeoff, Nilz will have two people get into the basket with him. They wait anxiously for an official on the field to give them the okay to take off. Then he says, “Okay, let’s go!” and they begin to lift off the ground and take off. The crew team then quickly packs up the trailer and begins to chase after the balloon.

One time Newall and Nilz were flying during Fiesta, a hot air balloon event. Nilz had a lot of different landing options in mind but none of them were working out for him. 

“He started flying towards the airport, which is not air space you can encroach on,” explained Newall. 

Nilz was trying to direct the crew team but what he saw in the air was different from what they saw on the ground. His crew team found him in a small patch of land about a quarter of the size of a soccer field. There were houses all over— and Nilz luckily landed right in the middle of it. 

“We drove up to find him sitting there with the balloon already deflated, waiting for us to pack it up,” Newall said, laughing.

One of Nilz’s father’s friends lives on a farm — and they two had become friends because Nilz Sr. had landed on their farm one day. Nilz always wanted to land in the same spot as his dad.

A couple of years ago, he set up the balloon and realized the wind was blowing in the perfect direction. He jumped in the balloon and looked up at the sky to plan his journey. Nilz began to take off and head west towards the farm. The wind was perfect, guiding Nilz exactly where he needed to go. He had a huge smile on his face as he started to get close to the farm. He began to fire and pull the rope that makes a balloon descend. Nilz was using everything he learned to put the balloon right where he wanted it to go: his father’s friend’s farm.

Patrick Nilz’s balloon flies over the beach in Rocky Point, Mexico in 2019.
This event is known as the Fiesta. Photograph courtesy of Patrick Nilz.