While many children fantasize about soaring like a bird or parting the clouds like a costumed superhero, 9-year-old Bobby Bradley actually does slip the surly bonds of Earth.
A fourth-grader at Manzano Day School, Bobby pilots his own scaled-down, one-person hot-air balloon, technically classified by the FAA as an “ultralight” aircraft. He’ll have to wait until he’s 14 to receive a student pilot certificate so he can go solo in a regular size sport balloon, says his father, Troy Bradley, 47, a well-known balloonist. The elder Bradley has set multiple records in hot-air and gas balloons and is a commercial pilot for Albuquerque ballooning company Rainbow Ryders.
“I’ve grown up around ballooning, and my dad flies every morning, so it’s not like I want to sit there and watch. I want to be up in the air,” Bobby said.
And he has been — plenty of times — flying with his father and mother, Tami, also a pilot, in addition to working as a ground and chase crew member.
Bobby has thus far soloed three times in his own balloon, but he’ll likely just do tethered launches at this year’s fiesta, and only after the morning’s events are completed, because ultralights are not allowed to participate, Troy Bradley said.
At 4-feet, 10-inches tall and all of 80 pounds, Bobby can barely reach the burners on a standard balloon.
In his custom-designed balloon, everything is accessible. The one-person basket is roughly 3 feet by 2 feet, which is one-half to one-third the footprint of a standard sport balloon basket.
The envelope itself holds 32,000 cubic feet of hot air, compared to the 90,000 cubic feet of a standard sport balloon envelope. The smaller propane tank on his balloon limits his ability to stay aloft to between one and two hours, but otherwise, Bobby said, “it flies exactly like any other balloon and at the same altitudes.”
Troy said he never pushed his son to pursue ballooning. “There was no need to push him,” he said. “It truly is his own desire, which is fine with me because I’d rather he embrace it on his own terms.”
Of course, growing up around the sport provided ample opportunity. Troy Bradley, originally from Colorado, got the ballooning bug at age 11 from his grandparents, Jim and Helen Dutrow, two of Colorado’s earliest hot-air balloonists. Under their instruction, he got his student pilot certificate and soloed at the age of 14 — two years before he got his driver’s license.
Bobby’s mom, Tami, soloed at age 17.
Watching Bobby solo for the first time filled Troy and Tami Bradley with pride. “Of course, we were also nervous and worried in the way parents are for a child, but we don’t think it’s a high-risk activity, and we knew Bobby was overly prepared,” Troy said. “Most students solo after 7 or 8 hours of piloting. Bobby had about 30 hours.”
Taste of fame
Bobby’s accomplishments at the tender age of 9 have made him something of a celebrity. The September/October edition of Ballooning Magazine features a photo of Bobby on the cover and a story inside.
In most other respects, he is like other kids his age. He takes guitar lessons, enjoys video games and plays in basketball and soccer leagues. He is also enrolled in his school’s accelerated math program and is the captain of the school chess team.
“He’s a hard kid to keep up with,” Troy said, “but (he) and his sister make parenting easy.”
Clearly, ballooning is not everything in his life, but it is definitely one of the more important factors. Oddly, Bobby confesses that he is afraid of heights and of being alone.
“I would freak out on top of the Empire State Building or in a house all by myself,” he said. “But being alone and high up in balloon is a different sensation. It eliminates all fear. I feel like I’m floating across the sky — like I’m riding on a cloud.”
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal