Sky Pilot

Riding in a hot air balloon is like watching a giant IMAX screen, says Wayne Mohring

Wayne Mohring recalls vividly Fourth of July weekend in 1981 in Ames, Iowa. An architecture student at Iowa State University, Mohring was working at The Great Plains Sauce and Dough Co. (The pizza there was – and is – so renowned, he says, that travelers from Chicago would make a special point to stop there for a slice.) “I had just bought a 35mm camera for a photography class I was going to take in the fall, and I thought, ‘I’d better learn how to use this thing,’” recalls Mohring, who is director of materials management at Faith Regional Health Services, Norfolk, Neb.

Posters around town announced that a hot air balloon rally would be held Fourth of July weekend, and young Mohring felt this would be an opportunity to try out the camera. “And I thought it would be interesting; I had never seen a balloon before.”

He woke up early and went to the site of the balloon launch. The pilots were at a pre-flight meeting, receiving their weather briefing and becoming acquainted with the “tasks” on which they would be judged for the competition. (Typical task: Dropping a 3-ounce bean bag as close as possible to a predetermined site on the ground.) About a dozen balloons were ready for launch.

“All the pilots came out of their meeting and started walking to their rigs,” recalls Mohring. “But one eyed me standing there all by myself, and he did a sharp left turn and asked me, ‘Do you want to crew?’ I said, ‘I have never seen a balloon before, let alone crew.’ He said, ‘That doesn’t matter; it’s easy.’” The balloonist was Bill O’Donnell from Rockford, Ill.

Actually, it wasn’t all that easy. One of the crew’s responsibilities is to chase the balloonist in a van or truck, and try to be on hand to pick him or her up at the end of the flight, wherever that might be (usually in a farmer’s field somewhere). “They had a nice gentle launch,” he recalls of that first rally. But that day had what Midwesterners call a “low level jet,” in which the winds pick up a couple of hundred feet in the air. “He got up there, not too far above the tree line, and just took off. And I’m still down there, loading the van, trying to keep an eye on him. I saw him do that and I thought, ‘Oh no.’”

But Mohring was familiar with the back roads in and around Ames, and did a good job of keeping the balloon in sight. He was able to use a CB radio to stay in contact with O’Donnell. (This was before cell phones.) The balloon came down in a freshly cut alfalfa field, and slid into an adjoining field of corn, whose stalks measured 6 or 7 feet high. At 70 feet tall, the balloon (called the “envelope”) ended up covering 50 or 60 rows of corn.

As Mohring pulled off the road, O’Donnell got out of the basket and walked through the corn rows, only to see a pickup heading toward him. “He radios me. ‘Is that the farmer?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’” His next comment, joking, was, “Does he have a gun?” Indeed, the farmer didn’t. Turns out the farmer was more curious about the balloon than angry about the corn, and the three men hauled the 200-pound balloon and 180-pound basket out of the field and loaded them back into the van.

O’Donnell thought they would be the last to rejoin the other balloonists at the propane truck, but discovered they were first. Other balloonists had decided not to brave the winds, and had landed their balloons, and some crew members had no idea where they were. “So in my very first experience with a balloon, I turned out as the most successful crew member that day, because I was the only one not to lose the balloon,” he recalls.
So began Wayne Mohring’s love affair with balloons.

Architecture student
Mohring was born and raised in Charles City, Iowa, in the northeastern part of the state. His father worked for Oliver Tractor Co. His mom stayed at home. Young Mohring developed an interest in architecture in high school. In fact, he was so talented in his drafting class, that one of the math teachers asked him – upon the recommendation of his industrial arts teacher – to design a house for him. That house was built and today sits on acreage outside of Charles City.

He elected to go to Iowa State and for three years pursued an architecture degree, all the while working his way through school. But in his fourth year, he realized architecture was not for him. He answered a newspaper ad for a long-haul truck driver out of Ames, and took the job. “I said this was something I only wanted to do for a couple of years,” he says.

“Everybody has a stereotype in mind of what a truck driver is,” says Mohring. He discovered truck drivers are a good cross-section of America. “You’ve got a lot of husband-and-wife teams out there; maybe their kids are out of the house; so they drive around and see the country. And it was a good opportunity to see the country. I’ve been to all 48 [continental] states, and on every Interstate in the country.”

But after a couple of years of driving, Mohring decided it was time to go back to school. He enrolled at the University of Nebraska in Omaha in accounting. On days when he didn’t have class, he would do an overnight trip for the trucking company to Chicago or St. Louis or Denver. “They were real good at working on that, so I’d be gone overnight and back at school in the morning,” he says.

But as his classes got more involved, the trucking gig got harder to pull off. His girlfriend, (now wife, Janet) suggested he apply for a job where she worked – the University of Nebraska Medical Center (now just called Nebraska Medical Center). “I thought, ‘This isn’t something I ever wanted to do,’” he recalls. But he took an evening job as a materials management clerk, inventorying the floors and making sure they were fully stocked. He got involved with implementation of a stockless program with Baxter (now Cardinal Health). But it was tough duty, attending classes full-time during the day, and holding a full-time job at night.

When a contract analyst position opened up in materials management, he took it. “My job was to make sure we were getting the best price available for the supplies we were buying, and usually that was through the group purchasing program,” he says. The facility was a member of University HealthSystem Consortium. In 1997, when University Hospital merged with Bishop Clarkson Hospital across the street, Mohring was asked to become a financial analyst (in the finance department) for the newly combined entity. And he did so, for about a year and a half. But he missed the variety of materials management, and started looking for a new job.

He found it at Faith Regional in Norfolk, where he reported to work on Sept. 9, 1999. At a population of 24,000, Norfolk is bigger than Charles City, but much smaller than Omaha, where Janet, his wife, is from. (Norfolk is also the town where the late entertainer Johnny Carson was raised.) Faith Regional was the result of a merger two years prior of Lutheran Community Hospital and our Lady of Lourdes. Just prior to his arrival, Faith had opened an offsite warehouse and was in the process of centralizing all materials activities there.

The next step
After that first rally in Ames, Mohring attended the national hot air championship competition in Indianola, Iowa, the next month, acting as an observer, which he describes as being like a referee in a basketball game. He or she is assigned to a pilot or crew to make sure they follow the guidelines for competitive events. He did that for a number of years, until the national competition moved out of Indianola and moved to different venues on a yearly basis. It was as an observer that he took his first ride in a balloon.

But it wasn’t until he and Janet moved to Norfolk that he thought seriously about learning how to fly a balloon on his own. “I thought, ‘I’ve had a lot of fun over the last almost 20 years, crewing for other pilots and participating in other ways; now it’s time to learn how to fly one of these things if I want to continue in the sport.’” A friend from Omaha, Rich Jaworski, agreed to train him. The process took about two years.

“It’s very similar to getting a fixed-wing pilot’s license,” he says. Trainees must have ground instruction and at least 10 hours of flight instruction. Mohring obtained his student pilot certificate in 2001, and over the next two years, received all the flight instruction, went to ground school and passed the knowledge test, more commonly known as the written exam. In August 2003, he took a practical exam, or check ride, with a Federal Aviation Administration examiner and received his pilot certificate. (To maintain their certificate, all pilots must either participate in an FAA-approved continuing education program, or perform a biennial flight review with an FAA-approved flight instructor.) In 2005, he became certified to be a commercial pilot, giving him the freedom to fly people for hire, tow commercial banners, and train other pilots.

Toward the end of the process, Mohring started looking for his own balloon and basket. He bought a used basket, manufactured by Raven Industries in Sioux Falls, S.D. For the balloon itself, he went to National Ballooning Ltd., in Winterset, Iowa. “Everything they do is custom-made,” he says. The prospective balloon owner is free to come up with his or her own design, using a template provided by the manufacturer. “My wife, my son and I spent 50 hours drawing balloons, filling in squares with different-colored magic markers,” he says.

The balloon, or envelope, is made of panels of nylon fabric. It is coated to reduce the effects of ultraviolet radiation on the fabric, and to seal the fabric, improving its ability to hold air. But eventually, the coating and fabric degrade. That’s why balloonists must have their craft inspected by an FAA-approved facility every 100 hours or annually, whichever comes first. Since few balloonists travel more than 100 hours a year, most refer to such inspections as their “annual inspection.”

Like all balloonists, Mohring has named his craft. “A balloon is legally named according to its aircraft registration, or ‘N’ number, as all U.S.-registered aircraft begin with the letter ‘N’,” he explains. Mohring’s balloon is N9005E. But after awhile, he noticed that the numbers sort of looked like the word “goose.” With double entendre names common among balloonists, it was natural to call his craft the “Wild Goose.” “It became appropriate, since you never know exactly where you’re going until you get there,” he says. “The crew then finds themselves on a Wild Goose chase.”

Mohring’s 17-year-old son, Mark, likes the sport, says Mohring, and often crews for his father as well as other pilots. It’s no surprise. “He has crewed since he was about 3 weeks old, from the time he was in a stroller.” Mohring’s wife, Janet, acts as crew chief.

Beware the power lines
Ballooning has its share of dangers, not the least of which are power lines. “You have to be conscious of what’s around you when you’re flying low,” he says. Night-riding, while possible, can be dangerous because of this. The crew is important in this regard.

“While the crew does sometimes chase the balloon, it is preferred the crew understand which direction the balloon will travel at its particular flight altitude, and put themselves in a position ahead of the balloon so they may [make] the pilot aware of obstacles in his flight path. This might be power lines, which cannot be easily seen from the air with the various colors of land as a background; or livestock in the flight path, which may be obscured by an obstacle, such as a barn or tree cover. A balloon pilot will want to fly higher in these areas – maybe 1,000 feet or more – as balloons tend to spook livestock, and we don’t want them busting through fences and causing injury to themselves.”

Although ballooning is a great summer sport, it is also OK in winter. In fact, for those who can brave the cold, winter ballooning offers certain advantages. First, there are a lot more places to land, as the farmers’ fields are fallow for the season. Second, cold air is denser than hot air, thus making it easier to float in, allowing for longer flights on the same amount of propane. In cold weather, the propane tanks have to be pressurized, but that’s no big deal, says Mohring.

It’s true that Mohring likes the adventures associated with hot-air ballooning. “While you won’t find my name on any record, at least not yet, I’ve had the opportunity to crew for another pilot in his successful attempts to establish world records in hot air ballooning,” he says. “In this adventure, teamwork and experience are crucial, not only to find the pilot after he’s landed, but to keep him alive.”

He describes his experience serving as navigator for a pilot and chase crew as the pilot sought to set a record for duration of flight in a particular size hot air balloon. “The ideal situation would be to launch in calm conditions, hover over the launch field and then land when the fuel runs out,” he says. “But atmospheric conditions are seldom ideal, especially for this long a time period.

“During one flight, the pilot covered 240 miles while we, the chase crew, travelled well over 400 miles. Launching from Grand Forks, N.D., the balloon was at one point headed for a landing in the middle of Lake Superior. The lake was not frozen, yet the ambient temperature during flight ranged from nighttime low of minus 30 F to a daytime high of minus 17 F. To miss the lake, I had to encourage the pilot to fly higher, thereby use more fuel in a shorter period of time and give up his attempt at a duration record, but get him into a wind direction that would keep him off a massive open body of water.

“This also increased his speed and meant I had to navigate the crew through the snow-covered back roads of forested and lake-filled northern Minnesota in order to keep within radio range, because the pilot was flying more or less blind at night.” The pilot ultimately landed safely on a frozen lake in west central Wisconsin.
Adventure aside, Mohring simply loves flying in the Wild Goose. “What most people don’t realize is that, when you’re flying, everything is as still as can be,” he says. “It’s very quiet, very peaceful, except when you operate the burner, there’s a little roar from that.
“It’s like watching a giant IMAX screen. You’re watching the world go by.”