Mackie Loves Sharing the Sky Life - TribPapers

Mackie Loves Sharing the Sky Life

Satisfied customers. Credit: Asheville Balloon Company.

Asheville – Tom Mackie just got back from ballooning in Africa. A happy guy who loves talking to people, he’s the owner and operator of Asheville Balloon Company, I Love to Fly, LLC. They’re the people behind the colorful hot air balloons often seen in the Asheville skies.

When Mackie was two years old, living in New Orleans, he fell out of a second-story window. His mother said he’s wanted to fly ever since, but his father didn’t appreciate his passion. To him, being a pilot wasn’t a legitimate profession. It was “like a glorified tennis pro.” He wanted him to be an engineer. Two of Mackie’s kids are now pilots, though.

Mackie first flew a plane with his uncle in New Orleans, and he was a flight instructor through his college years. He became interested in ballooning while flying gliders in Florida. He owned and operated a flight instruction school, Miami Gliders, and a balloonist “kept flying by.” Now, he has ratings to fly all forms of aviation except blimps and gyrocopters, and he’s currently working on the latter.

Enjoying an easy, breezy summer day. Credit: Asheville Balloon Company.
Enjoying an easy, breezy summer day. Credit: Asheville Balloon Company.

When Mackie decided to fly hot air balloons in Asheville, he worked with the folks who were already doing it locally. Now, all these people are working together at Asheville Balloon Company. Having flown balloons all over the world, Mackie says Western North Carolina is the best place because the views are so beautiful.

Asheville Balloon Company has four pilots: Jim Barnett, Danny Smith, Louise Egerton, and Don Edwards, whom Mackie describes as “extremely experienced.” One was even the head of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fest. Mackie wouldn’t settle for less, as “safety is our number-one concern. We have to be on our game. We have to land in front yards, backyards, tight spaces …”

They also have a ground crew that follows the balloons. They have to know the area and all the backwoods streets. They also happen to be gifted mechanics. Then, there’s Phyllis, who handles the admin, like booking flights and maintaining the website. Mackie said she really runs the show.

Mackie can’t stop raving about how much he “loves being in the sky with people,” and he can’t stop raving about the people he works with at Asheville Balloon Company. “They’re the best in the world. I’m the owner of the company, and I probably do the least amount of work.”

Asheville Balloon Company doesn’t have a storefront because they travel to meet people on-location. “Our office is the sky! That’s my office.” With a day job as an international pilot for a major airline, he said it seems he spends more time up there than he does on the ground.

Mackie describes the ballooning community as a close-knit, small world. His wife said he had a bromance with Joe Kittinger, who, among other things, free-fell 102,800 feet from a helium balloon in an aerospace medical research project. He held the record until he helped Felix Baumgartner, as part of Project Red Bull Stratos, break his record and the sound barrier. The record is now held by Alan Eustace, who jumped from 135,890 feet.

Mackie also knows guys who have made trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific balloon trips. His buddy Wilheim Eimers set a record when he remained aloft 92 hours. Mackie said once balloons are in the air, they flow with the currents. The pilot changes course by burning more or less propane. This allows the balloon to rise or fall until it catches a stream with a better vector.

Also, pilots navigate mostly by sight. They use GPS or an app called Hot Air at higher altitudes when it is more difficult to get a sense of their speed and direction.

Most people want to balloon in the autumn, but Mackie says summer is best because the winds are calmer. He said he tells people to lower their expectations on account of the weather. They won’t fly in inclement weather, and fog can make things difficult. Even a strong wind could make for a short trip. “We like to go slow.” It goes with the champagne and charcuterie at the end of every trip.

Mackie said he keeps getting offers from people who want to grow his business, but he likes it just the way it is. The balloons typically fly couples, although they could take four to six. Most customers are looking for something “small and romantic. They don’t want to be in a big cattle car balloon. I’ve seen some in Africa that hold 25–30.”

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