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Omaha Magazine

Ballooning Expectations

Aug 26, 2019 11:45AM ● By J.D. Avant

Steve Lacroix feels at home 25,000 feet above the metro area. He has always reached for the skies, recalling back to his childhood spent climbing trees and idolizing his father, a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. After moving to Omaha from Canada at the age of 7, Lacroix continued dreaming about the upper atmosphere until the opportunity arose to join a relative’s commercial hot-air balloon crew in 1989.

"I had so much fun being a part of my cousin Jeff Geiger’s crew in California,” Lacroix says. “After he was finished with his paid flights, he took me for a ride in his balloon. We only went up about 40 feet, but I was hooked. It reminded me of my childhood fantasies of flying, and after that experience I was determined to earn my pilot’s license.”

Hot air balloons are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, and balloonists are required to have a pilot’s license. Lacroix earned his commercial pilot license in 2003, and he soon sought out an experienced balloon manufacturer. Lacroix designed his first balloon, Second Wind, with the help of Ken Kennedy of Broken Bow, Nebraska. Since 2006, he has flown enough to retire two balloons, including Second Wind and the aptly named Propane Addiction.

These days, Lacroix operates two magnificent balloons—Celebration, and Celebrate Too. Celebrate Too is touted as the largest hot-air balloon in Nebraska, standing 80 feet tall and holding 142,000 cubic feet of air when fully inflated. Manufactured by Kubicek Balloons, its basket can transport up to seven passengers plus the pilot.

“I wanted the design to look as close to our smaller balloon, Celebration, as possible,” Lacroix says, referring to the undulating color-patterns adorning both balloons. “I took the original template for Celebration home in 2010 from The National Balloons Co. in Winterset, Iowa, and I used my wife’s box of crayons to come up with the design.”

The ballooners arrive 30 minutes prior to take-off. It takes a crew of three to five people less than 20 minutes to unpack the balloon and inflate it with cold-air from a gas-powered fan. Once expanded, double burners shoot 15 foot towers of flame into the balloon, heating the air before launch. The crew includes his wife Elane, who serves as chief operator of the chase vehicle.

Lacroix’s love of flying takes him out any day of the year, if Mother Nature enables it.

“This year, Jan. 5, it got up to 55 degrees and I flew,” Lacroix said.

He mainly flies around Omaha, but he set one flight goal by going not just out of Omaha, but out of state.

“I went a little over 100 miles, it was roughly from Omaha to St. Joseph,” Lacroix said. “The reason was I wanted to do a flight over 100 miles. It was a cold, cold morning. I’m thinking it was in February, it was about 25 degrees out.”

He specifically picked a winter temperature because colder temps give a balloon operator more lift, thus using less fuel. The direction dictated the end point, and in the winter, the jet stream is usually moving south. As he moved along, he gained speed, reaching an interstate-respectable 68 mph at 10,000 feet.

The chilly air, however, did not dictate that he was freezing. Ballooners do not contend with wind chill, since the air around the balloon is also moving 68 mph. By the last hour, he was about 1,000 feet above ground, and, having reached his goal, Lacroix stopped in St. Joseph. His crew was there at his landing point, where they reversed the setup process, packed, and drove home.

Along with the personal goal, Lacroix flies for the fun of it, and he participates in about a dozen competition rallies throughout the year, sometimes traveling for a couple of hours to Indianola, Iowa, and sometimes traveling a couple of days to Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has won a few individual events, but no full competitions, and that’s OK.

“We’re flying for competition points, which amounts to flying for fun,” Lacroix says.

His main ballooning experience, however, comes from his business, Scenic Wind Balloon Tours. 

From mid-March to October Lacroix maintains a busy schedule, piloting his balloons seven days a week on two flights a day that each last one hour. Launch sites are plentiful on Omaha’s outskirts, including Zorinsky Lake and the Field of Dreams near Soaring Wings Vineyard in Springfield. He relies on his crew to make sure everything is ship-shape before any flight.

“The hardest part of my day is packing champagne into the cooler for after-flight celebrations,” Lacroix mused.

While this seems like a small task, the champagne is an important part of ballooning. Legend tells of the first balloon pilots offering bottles of bubbly to the farmers in whose fields they landed. In 19th century France, where ballooning first became popular, those who had never seen a hot-air balloon often thought the pilots were monsters or aliens. The champagne was offered to the landowner as a thank you gift, and to prove the balloonists were indeed people.

Balloonists traditionally give a champagne toast at the end of a flight. It is also fitting for Lacroix. Although he makes sure to land in public areas such as roads, his customers are often celebrating special occasions. He takes customers up in a balloon for any number of reasons—weddings, engagements, birthdays. Skydivers have jumped from his aircraft.

Lacroix has seen some unusual situations from the sky, but one sticks out in particular.

“We did a flight quite a number of years ago for a 50th birthday, and as we were looking for a place to land, we drove near a neighborhood that was just being built,” Lacroix said. “It’s just empty lots at that point and roads. We see a small car, and the passengers asked if that was one of the crew. I said ‘no, it isn’t.’ All of a sudden the guy pulls over, gets out, and moons us.”

Whether flying locally for himself or for a customer, on a clear day, passengers are treated to an epic view of the Nebraska sunrise. The final flight of the day must start at least an hour before sunset, or Lacroix is forced to cancel.

“Better to be safe than sorry,” he asserts.

Lacroix remains ever vigilant of the weather. He prefers ground wind speeds around 7 miles an hour prior to take-off, and it isn’t uncommon for upper winds to reach 30 miles per hour. The landings, however, require skill and luck.

“Coming in for a landing can be like a 3D chess game,” Lacroix said. “But…you hardly notice the speed.”

Overall, however, the chance to be up high in the sky is its own reward.

“Your perception really changes while you’re up in a balloon. The city looks like a sprawling metropolis from 25,000 feet up, but you also notice certain buildings and monuments aren’t as far apart as they seem. It really gives you a sense of the sheer vastness of Omaha.”

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This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Steve Lacroix and his balloon