Smart's childhood dream of flying is now a paying hobby

Chris Smart, of Huntington, stands in front of the trailer for "The Dreamcatcher," the host air balloon he pilots in competitions in the area and locally durng passenger rides.
Chris Smart, of Huntington, stands in front of the trailer for "The Dreamcatcher," the host air balloon he pilots in competitions in the area and locally durng passenger rides. Photo by Jessica Williams.

Originally published  Sept. 28, 2009.

What started as a chase 17 years ago has now became a paying hobby. For Chris Smart, his childhood dream was to fly.

"When I was young, I always wanted to be a pilot; always thought I'd be a jet pilot, but that didn't happen ..." he says.

But when he followed a hot air ballooner to his landing spot in 1989, he was offered the chance of a lifetime.
The pilot said he was in need for crewmembers and asked Smart if he was interested. Smart said he was and it took off from there, literally.

He crewed for the man for about two years and after Smart crewed eight times he got a ride, which he said was ideal because it didn't cost anything.

The pilot, at the end of the two years, asked Smart if he'd like to learn how to fly. He said he was interested, but couldn't afford it.

The pilot posed an offer that was hard to refuse; he would train Smart if Smart flew his passengers for two years and the pilot took the money.

Smart says that's the only way he could have gotten into it. After that two-year session, the two split the money and after that, the duo parted ways and decided to do their own things, so in 1996 he bought his own balloon.

Since then, he is on his second balloon and has accomplished half of his goal; he participated in the national competition the last week of August as a back-up pilot on the wait list. Now he wants to be able to qualify in the top 50 and attend.

He qualified in the past, but the competitions were held so far away, Smart says, that he was unable to go. But this year's competition was held in Battle Creek, MI, and they let the four pilots on the wait list participate, too.
It was a learning experience, says Smart, and it was "so stressful and intense."

"When I went to the nationals, it was really intimidating to be with world champions and multi-national champions, and I just felt like I was out of my league ... I think the fear factor and nerves got the best of me."

Most competitions locally are "hare and hound" format. This means that all the balloonists all take off as "hounds" while they chase the "hare" pilot in the lead. Once the lead pilot lands, he or she lays a big target on the ground that the other pilots have to throw a beanbag at. The closest to the center wins.

"Ideally, you would come in a foot off the ground and if you're right at the target, reach out and set your bag on the center of the ‘X.' But sometimes you have to stay up 100 or 200 feet to stay in the right wind that will carry you over the target, so then it becomes judging when to throw your baggie because it's going to drift ..." he says.

But because of air currents at different levels he can't get too low. Also, balloon pilots can't allow their basket to touch the ground or skim treetops or they will get disqualified, Smart explains.

"It's all about accuracy instead of speed," Smart says, discussing the methods of local competitions.

However, at nationals, it was a whole new ball game.
The pilots are given coordinates to make their targets instead of visible ones. For example, they had to go through an invisible hoop in the sky via coordinates with a GPS. Instead of one target, there were usually multiple targets in one run, he says.

At the end of the competition, Smart finished 44th out of 54 pilots, so now he can say he's in the top 50 balloonists in the country, he adds.

But that isn't the only competition he and his Dreamcatcher crew has competed in this year.
He says he has been busy throughout the season in multiple local competitions and giving rides in the county. His crew will travel out of the county, but he will charge travel fees.

Smart says some pilots put their balloon away in the winter, but if it's flyable, he will be out. He has several spots mapped out where people will allow him to take off and land, but it depends on the wind.

And just recently in Valparaiso, his team picked up a first and second place finish in a competition.

As of Tuesday, Sept. 15, Smart has put in 881 flights and is close to getting his third balloon, which won't be cheap.

He compares the price of hot air balloon envelope (the actual balloon piece) material to the price of cars; for example there are some options you can choose to get.
But a balloon isn't the only thing a balloonist needs.

"Then you have to have a trailer, a fan and good friends and family to help you," he laughs.

Smart says his on-the-side hobby has turned into something larger.

"It started out as a hobby, but now it's kind of a hobby-job because I am a commercial pilot so I can take paying passengers and I'm also a hired pilot for Remax of Indiana ..." he explains.

He also wants to reassure those people in Huntington that see him fly low while out on a flight that he is usually not in trouble, he is either about to land or steer left, he says.

That's how they steer, Smart says, low is left and high is right. It has to do with the way atmospheric pressure is, he explains.

And when he dips into lakes or ponds and skims the top of trees, that's how he breaks, he goes on to say. Some competitions give extra points to "splash and dash," or briefly touch down in a water mass.

"That shows you have control over the balloon," Smart says.

He also says The Dreamcatcher crew, sponsored by WSI Gas, is done taking reservations for this year and that he has about 15 people on the wait list, but to call 224-0251 to book for next year.

Then he and his crew can take you up, up and away.