Pennsylvania native Deiter Hanbicki grew up in the hot air balloon industry. His parents operated a balloon ride business of their own throughout his childhood, which fueled Hanbicki’s early affinity for the sport. Now, he’s a University of New Mexico nuclear engineering graduate student and self-proclaimed balloon enthusiast, flying and competing across the country.
Hanbicki is a part of the crew for Balloon 222, who oversee the mustachioed balloon named Guilty that is owned and operated by crew leader Caryn Welz and her husband, Zerek, who is the pilot. They often participate in hot air ballooning competitions out of state as well. This balloon is a racer balloon, which is able to cut through the air with greater efficiency, according to Hanbicki.
This year, along with crewing for Balloon 222 with Welz at Balloon Fiesta, Hanbicki will be flying his remote control balloon for several days of the event. Hanbicki said this is the first time the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is using RC balloons.
Hanbicki said buzz around RC balloons, which are physically smaller-scale than standard hot air balloons, had been picking up before the pandemic as a “critical mass” of individuals were either in Albuquerque or coming to the city to fly them. Abundant free time during the pandemic prompted Hanbicki to build his own specially shaped bumblebee RC balloon.
“We’re going to be flying (tethered) while all of the other balloons are taking off around us,” Hanbicki said.
With the Balloon 222 crew at the Fiesta, Hanbicki acts as the crew chief and educates inexperienced crew members on how to execute their responsibilities with the full-sized balloon, Guilty, Welz said.
“The reason why we love our crew is because they’ve become our family,” Welz said. “They not only hang out with us on the field and help us but they’re our friends off the field, too.”
Any given morning of ballooning at a competition involves extremely early call times and a weather report briefing to determine if it’s safe to fly and how they want to proceed in accordance with wind patterns, according to Hanbicki.
“In competition, we’re always trying to move as quick as possible,” Hanbicki said. “Winds do shift. So, if we see a wind direction we like, we know that it is there right now, so we want to be up as soon as possible to catch that wind before it goes away.”
Hanbicki crews with Welz year-round, often participating in competitions throughout the country, including at the 2021 Balloon Federation of America U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship, which Welz said Guilty qualified for this year and participated in during August.
“At its simplest, judges put an ‘X’ in a field and you launch a mile away and try (to) throw a bag at the center of the ‘X’ in that field,” Hanbicki said. “We went to nationals this year in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.”
In 2018, Guilty placed 10th out of roughly 550 balloons at the Balloon Fiesta competition, according to Hanbicki.
“When you’re competing, our goal is to get the balloon in the air as fast as we can and with Deiter’s help, we’ve been able to get the balloon from truck to air in under ten minutes,” Welz said.
Hanbicki said he was able to get involved with ballooning in Albuquerque through a crew wanted post on social media. This was not surprising to Welz, who said social media is an open and inviting space for the hot air balloon community as well as the public.
“Balloon pilots, crew and enthusiasts connect over social media all the time,” Welz said. “We use that social media outlet as an opportunity to not only connect with pilots, crew and balloon enthusiasts, but to educate about the sport.”
Hanbicki said being a semi-professional crew member for Balloon 222 and competing at an elite level instills immense fulfillment at this stage of his life.
Rebecca Hobart is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @rjhobart