April 23, 2019

Up, up and away! The sky has been calling Eric Howard of Surgical Sciences since he was a boy.

Drifting with the tail-wind against the brush-strokes of the day

Photo by Carl Lambert

Look up into Middle Tennessee skies, and you might just spot longtime Vanderbilt University Medical Center employee Eric Howard sailing past the clouds.

By weekday, Howard’s a mild-mannered manager of data analytics VUMC’s Section of Surgical Sciences, but on weekends — if skies are blue and winds are favorable — he puts on his pilot’s cap and takes the helm of a hot air balloon.

He and his wife Peggy, who’s been a Vanderbilt University employee since 1999, are the owner-operators of the hot air balloon sightseeing company, Nashville Balloon Rides. They’ve hosted high-flying adventures in the area and at balloon festivals across the country since 1997.

Eric and Peggy Howard enjoy riding and taking others for rides in their hot air balloon. Photo by Carl Lambert

“Growing up, I lived near the airport in Owensboro, Kentucky,” he said. “I would watch jets come down and touch the runway. They wouldn’t stop — just touch it. As a pilot, you have to do at least three landings within every 90 days to keep flying. After the pilots touched the runway, they’d hit their afterburners and do a power turn right over my house. I’d always run out into the front yard and wave to them.”

That ignited his passion to become a pilot, and Eric dreamed of attending the United States Air Force Academy. Unfortunately, he had to get vision-correcting contacts while in high school which ruled out becoming a military pilot. But it didn’t rule out flight.

Just out of college, he worked as an engineer in the aerospace industry, first employed by a company named Sparta Inc. that worked on President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), commonly known as Star Wars. Although he hadn’t gotten his pilot’s license yet, he held onto his dream.

Years passed, and one summer his family, including their three sons, visited an Alabama water park. A hot air balloon event was being held there that same weekend. Howard quizzed the pilots about their experience and soon decided ballooning would make a great family pastime, as well as fulfill his desire to be airborne. Operating a hot air balloon, or as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) categorizes them, a “lighter than air” aircraft, is also much less expensive than a “fixed-wing” aircraft or airplane.

“Our plan was to go around the country to balloon events in the summer with the kids,” he said. “After we got our first balloon, we decided we could make some money to help offset the cost. We started Nashville Balloon Rides in 2000.”

To pilot a hot air balloon and offer flights for hire, you must have a commercial pilot’s license issued by the FAA, just as you would for a commercial airplane. Every two years balloon pilots are also required perform a flight review to demonstrate their competency in various flight skills and aeronautical knowledge.

Eric Howard inflates the balloon with hot air in preparation of sending it aloft. Photo by Carl Lambert

Eric’s first balloon lesson took flight in 1997 from the parking lot of a Cadillac dealership in Maryland Farms in Brentwood, Tennessee.

“One of the things I had to do to get my license, was to go up to 5,000 feet, turn off all the burners, and let the balloon get into what’s called a terminal descent, which is descending as fast as it will go. Then, I had to turn everything back on and pull it out into a level flight. We fell from 5,000 to 2,000 feet, and I pulled it out into a level flight at 1,800 feet.”

The couple has retired their first balloon, and they now fly a striking red, white and blue balloon with a design on the envelope — the balloon portion — that mirrors the starred field of a Tennessee flag. The balloon is appropriately named Ms. Tennessee.

“When we first started flying, it was kind of new to the area, and people tended to call the police whenever we were landing,” Peggy laughed. “A balloon lands wherever there is room to land – we don’t need an airport. People would call 911 and say, ‘A balloon’s crashing in our neighborhood!’ Officers might drive by and look. I don’t know if people just don’t call any more or if the police tell them the balloon is probably just landing.”

When the Howards opened their hot air balloon business, there were about 12 hot air balloon pilots offering flights in the area. Now, there are only three or so that are active, Eric said. After the 9/11 attacks, insurance costs for operating hot air balloons skyrocketed. Another factor has been a change in the weather.

“Climate change has definitely impacted us,” he said. “It’s a much more energized atmosphere, so we don’t get to fly as much. The flights are usually faster, and we really don’t like going fast in a balloon. It’s just much different than it used to be.”

When their boys were young, they served as flight crew, helping unload the large, wicker basket and unfurling and holding open the massive nylon envelope as it filled with hot air; then, they did the reverse when the balloon landed.

Photo by Carl Lambert

While their now-adult sons no longer serve as crew, Peggy’s retained her role as Crew Chief. She drives the chase vehicle, a large pickup truck with enough space to stow the balloon, basket and gear in back. Another individual riding with Peggy is the spotter/navigator whose job is to maintain visual contact with Ms. Tennessee and track the transmitted signal of the balloon’s exact path of flight using an app called Hot Air, so the chase vehicle can quickly arrive at the landing site.

Now, the Howards typically book two-three paid flights a month, as well as attending their favorite hot air balloon events, allowing time for other activities they enjoy such as rock climbing and whitewater boating. And they’re busy planning their next balloon.

“Our retirement dream has been to go full commercial, and just travel around the country ballooning,” Eric said. “We’re thinking of getting a special shape; we’ve just got to find a sponsor. With me being a Star Wars fan, and having worked on Reagan’s Star Wars, I’d love to have a Death Star balloon. Special-shaped balloons are very expensive. Darth Vader’s head cost about $90,000 to build about 10 years ago when they made it. I just need a billionaire philanthropist who wants to travel around the world and fly in the balloon.”

If you know of anyone who fits the bill, let him know.