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One-on-One with Scott Appelman

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Scott Appelman has genetics to thank, at least in part, for his becoming a balloonist.

It’s not that his mom or dad passed down DNA full of hot air or that he even had aviators in the family tree. It was the fact that he couldn’t hack the subject matter.

“I wanted to be a dentist. I don’t know why,” said the president of Rainbow Ryders, which gives hot-air balloon rides and makes balloons for corporate clients. “I remember sitting in genetics class, and at the end of four weeks on our first quiz, I was going, I need to seriously reevaluate my career ’cause I didn’t have a clue. I couldn’t follow it.”

THE BASICS: Born Wayne Scott Appelman in Los Angeles on Aug. 10, 1958; degree in finance and economics from the University of New Mexico Anderson School of Management; engaged to Heather Pittman; two children, Ryan, 29, and Nicole, 27; owner of pets Einstein, “the most fearless miniature schnauzer that exists,” and Honou the turtle.
POSITION: President of Rainbow Ryders Inc.; inducted into the N.M. Tourism Hall of Fame in April; past chairman of the board for the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau.
WHAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW: “I love fireworks. I’m kind of a pyromaniac at heart. … When I was 6 or 7 years old, I obviously wasn’t supposed to be playing with matches, but I was lighting fireworks and I lit the field across from our house on fire…. We’ve had some major (fireworks at his house). We’ve had the police visit once or twice. And you know, I understand the rules. I’m not trying to be a complete rebel, but the bottom line is I like things goin’ up and watching them boom.”

He switched to business classes, graduated and spent the next six years in the family company, Academy Plumbing and Heating, which still exists today.

At that time, ballooning for him was no more than a serious hobby. Appelman traveled the country competing in balloon races. But he did so well that he decided in the mid-’80s to take it up full-time.

“The train of thought at this time was like a NASCAR driver – I was up there at the national level, I was gonna be a sponsor, I was gonna travel around and be a rock star (balloonist). Well, that didn’t really happen,” he said. “Though we continued to pursue that approach, in the meantime we had to pay bills and eat. So we started doing balloon rides, and we started with a two- and a three-passenger balloon out of the house down in the Ridgecrest area.”

Zoning issues and neighbors tired of being awakened by 4 a.m. flight preparations forced the family to move to an area more accommodating. Until seven years ago, when Appelman moved the business into an office and balloon port near Alameda and Interstate-25, he ran Rainbow Ryders out of his home in North Albuquerque Acres.

Appelman received his commercial pilot’s license, Lighter than Air rating, in 1984, and has since conducted between 5,000 and 6,000 flights.

Rainbow Ryders has been the Official Hot Air Balloon Ride Concession for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta since 1999. That contract, which was set to expire this year, just received an extension through the end of 2012.

The company employs 50 people between its Albuquerque office and it’s three-year-old location in Phoenix, flying about 18,000 passengers annually. Appelman expects annual revenues this year to be about $2.3 million.

Q: What was your first ballooning experience?

A: When I first moved here (at age 12 from California), they had like the first balloon event here, and I actually cut class and I went up to the state fairgrounds and saw this balloon thing. I ended up volunteering to help crew, and as a result of me volunteering got to go for a ride (his first). I think it was the First Annual International Balloon Fiesta ’cause they had done it the year before at Coronado Center. … And then when I was finishing up college at UNM, a good friend of mine got a balloon and he taught me how to fly.

Q: What did your first balloon look like?

A: It was yellow with a rainbow through it. My kids actually helped design it. I mean, they were little, but…. (The name of the company, Rainbow Ryders, was the result of this balloon.)

Q: What was the attraction to ballooning from the start?

A: One, I love to fly. I was the weird dude that would go watch planes take off and land at the airport, you know going through high school and stuff like that. … And I love the method of flight. It’s the absolute epitome of ‘keep it simple.’

Q: Do you have a favorite special shape?

A: Yeah, the (Creamland Dairies) cow. Hands down, it’s the best special shape ever.

Q: How many balloons have you owned in your life?

A: Sixty or 70. … There’s been a lot of talk lately about us doing a special shape, and I can see that being a possibility. … I’d love to be able to get hooked up with the Darth Vader (balloon) type of impact. But the economy needs to actually be on a path that is a little bit more predictable. … Special shapes will run $100,000 to $200,000 real quick. (An average balloon costs about $40,000.)

Q: What’s the best part of your job?

A: I get the opportunity to fulfill people’s dreams. They’re going for a balloon ride. They typically do that, it’s like a bucket list deal or something like that. So you’re part of all those memories. … To be part of that, that’s quite an honor.

Q: Is it true that you started the balloon glow and the special shapes rodeo?

A: I was the originator of the balloon glow back in I think it was ’86 or ’87. I went to school for a year in Fort Lewis (in Durango, Colo.) There’s a balloon event up there called Snowdown. So I went up to Snowdown and one night I decided to go put a balloon up at the base of the ski area and see the reflection off the snow. And it was kind of cool. So I brought it down to Albuquerque, and I was on the board of directors at Balloon Fiesta, and I said, ‘Hey, I want to try this at night.’ … And then a year or two later, the guy who taught me how to fly, Mark Sullivan, and I put together the Special Shapes Rodeo, and that’s how that came about.

Q: What’s the worst accident you’ve ever had?

A: I broke my kneecap in 1985 with a hard landing in Bernalillo.

Q: You must not be afraid of heights.

A: I’m scared to death of edges. OK, you ready for this? You will not see me on a ladder. Everybody in this office makes fun of me. … I’m scared of dams, like looking over the edge of a dam or even like say, looking out of the Hyatt Downtown and – that bothers me. It gives me the willies. I have no problem with ballooning, no problem at all.