Bittersweet final Balloon Fiesta as 85-year-old grandmother plans to retire - Albuquerque Journal

Bittersweet final Balloon Fiesta as 85-year-old grandmother plans to retire

Retiring Albuquerque pilot Elaine Thacher, 85, fires up the burners on her hot air balloon Saturday morning. For Thacher, the 50th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta will be her last. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Nothing could dampen the spirit of balloon pilot Elaine Thacher – not the thick clouds blanketing the sky and obscuring the Sandias, not the 50-degree temperatures, not even the light mist that fell nonstop over Balloon Fiesta Park, making an already soggy launch field even wetter.

It’s was all good to Thacher, who, at 85, is the oldest pilot flying in the 50th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Even though Saturday morning’s mass ascension was canceled, Thacher was among the pilots who set their balloon gondolas on the ground. Fiesta visitors, still hoping for a window of good weather so pilots could inflate and launch, were clearly delighted as Thacher’s propane burners came to life with a roar, sending a plume of fire high into the air.

The moment was bittersweet for Thacher, who had announced that she was retiring as a pilot after more than three decades and this would be her final Balloon Fiesta.

“Yeah, there’s a time, and it comes with age,” she said, standing in her wicker gondola. “The balloons are quite heavy – 500 or 600 pounds – and lifting them is very physical. And, now, most of my chase crew has gotten older and retired, though some of them say they don’t want to give it up. I tell them to just bring some cookies or something and we’ll have our time afterwards.”

Thacher also has a few younger members on the crew who have been relied on to do the heavy lifting.

She and her late husband, Donald Thacher, first came to Albuquerque in 1972 after he retired from the Air Force at the ripe old age of 38. They were en route from their home near Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, to Tucson. They stopped in Albuquerque to visit some of her husband’s relatives.

They liked Albuquerque so much that they just stayed and made a life here, raising their two daughters, who were 7 and 9 at the time.

“When we moved here, ballooning was just kind of starting,” Thacher said. “My husband found it very interesting, so we took a couple of commercial rides and then we got involved in crewing. We thought this is a lot of fun, maybe we’ll get our own balloon.”

And they did.

Donald got his pilot’s license in 1989, Elaine got hers in 1991. The couple had a presence at every Balloon Fiesta since. Donald died in 2015 and Elaine continued to fly.

The first of three balloons they owned over the years was purchased the same year that Donald Thacher bought a sports car. Their children declared, “dad’s gone bananas,” which became the name of that balloon. Elaine Thacher’s current balloon is named “I’m Bananas II.”

Grandson Cody Robinson, 31, stood inside the gondola of his balloon, “Grand Banana,” at Balloon Fiesta Park on Saturday, next to the gondola occupied by his grandmother, who he called his inspiration.

“We used to go to a balloon rally in Angel Fire. I think that was the very first time she let me pull the burners,” he recalled. “I guess I was around 11 and, of course, she was watching over me, but she let me pretty much fly the balloon. From then on, I was hooked.”

A software engineer in Kansas City, Missouri, Robinson has been a pilot for about five years and said he hopes no other family members want to learn to fly, “because they’re my crew,” he joked.

Cody Robinson of Kansas City, Missouri, says his grandmother, Elaine Thacher, who is 85, was the inspiration for him getting his pilot’s license five years ago. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Robinson isn’t the only person to have been inspired by his grandmother.

Chris Fisher is one of the younger folks on Thacher’s crew and has been with her for seven years. “It’s been an absolute honor to be with her,” he said. “I’ve been on rides with her and she’s an absolutely amazing pilot.”

Amy and Don Susan have been crewing for Thacher for 19 years, and agreed that, in addition to Thacher’s exceptional piloting skills, “she’s an even better human being,” said Amy. “She has shared her love of ballooning with us, and with all of our family and friends, and taken everybody we know for rides.”

In addition, said Amy, “I teach kindergarten for (Albuquerque Public Schools) and she’s brought her balloon to my school many times for my kids to see. So, she really shares her love of the sport with everybody around her.”

Even though Thacher claims to be getting old, “ballooning never gets old for me,” she said. “It’s still fascinating for me and I’ve met a lot of people from all over the country.”

The greatest joy she has received from her many years inside the gondola, she said, is that aspect of sharing the experience with her family, members of her crew and their families. For many of them, “it’s something they might never have done.”

And, for Elaine Thacher, it’s something she can hold in her memories as having done well – “and enjoyed every minute.”

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