A lightning strike could ignite the hydrogen-filled envelope keeping them aloft, fatally ending their first race together since the birth of their two children.
They relied on experience. Troy Bradley had earned 46 world records and both had been flying for years. “I’m willing to take a risk,” he says. “But, I want to be pretty sure I come out on the right side.”
They safely landed their balloon in New Mexico after only 80 miles, far short of the winning team’s 1,738-mile trek, but days after the race neither seemed to mind. Ballooning represents far more than competition for them. It’s about beauty, adventure, and perhaps more importantly, family.
The couple lives in Albuquerque, considered home to United States ballooning because of predictable winds flowing down from the Sandia Mountains and across the desert. Each year the city hosts the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which lured 750 balloons and thousands of spectators last fall.
Days after his race, Troy Bradley walks the field where crews inflate special shaped balloons for the festival—an armada of flying cows, pigs, houses, and aliens. Other balloons, guided only by the wind, will soon float in, pilots carefully gauging the breeze to dip down in hope of snagging an envelope from a 25-foot pole and winning a new sports utility vehicle.
Bradley, 38, learned how to fly from his grandfather outside Denver, then earned his pilot’s license at 16 and a license to fly commercial hot air balloons at 18—the youngest ages possible.
“Initially, it was just the beauty of it,” says Bradley, who admits the sport also fueled a sense of adventure, a willingness to push the envelope.
He moved to New Mexico, worked as chief pilot for a ballooning company, and pushed both hot air and gas-filled balloons about as far as anyone ever had. Hot air balloons use the flame from propane burners to heat the air inside a balloon and create lift in the cooler surrounding air. Gas-filled balloons represent the sports’ adventuresome edge, relying on gases such as hydrogen to keep the craft aloft for long-distance flights.
In 1992, Bradley was part of the first transatlantic balloon flight from North America to Africa. In 2002, he set a distance record for small gas-filled balloons, flying 1,200 miles while cramped into a gondola little bigger than a large trash can. The trip surpassed a record of about 500 miles set in 1922.
Other records fell (some since broken by others), but ballooning brought far more than competition. After moving to Albuquerque, Bradley became an instructor to Bob Stevenson, the owner of a laundry store chain and a man fascinated by ballooning.
As their friendship blossomed, Stevenson’s teenage daughter didn’t always approve.
“I was a daddy’s girl and I was jealous because he and my dad had become such fast friends,” says Tami Bradley, now 28, who earned her license to pilot hot air balloons when she was 17.
After high school, she left New Mexico for college in New York, but when her father was diagnosed with brain cancer she returned to Albuquerque where Bradley waited to help. Tami embraced her father’s wish to compete alongside his friend in the World Gas Balloon Championship.
“We knew he was going to be too sick to fly, but we didn’t want him giving up,” she says. “We told him I’d train to be his back-up.”
Stevenson died, but the experience of working together left a lasting bond between Bradley and Tami.
“From tragedy came something truly spectacular,” Bradley says.
Tami returned to college, but agreed to hear Bradley give a lecture in St. Louis. In a room filled with balloonists, he presented a slide show of his flight across the Atlantic. “The last slide read ‘Tami, will you marry me?’,” she says. “It was in front of 200 people.”
Nuptials and adventure followed. They settled in New Mexico, and, in 1998, a race that began at their home city’s balloon festival ended in spectacular fashion when strong winds just after launch carried them north in an express ride toward Canada. They flew across Fargo, N.D., traveling 200 feet up at 60 mph.
Race organizers contacted Canadian authorities, who approved a flight path into the country’s airspace and lofted a search plane. The couple finally landed in the Canadian wilderness, about 1,300 miles after launching and 75 miles from the nearest road.
A search plane found them within four hours. “It was total adventure,” Bradley says.
The couple now has two girls—Savannah, 2, and Bobby, 1—but they still find time to fly. Autos won’t fit in their three-car garage, only balloons and equipment. Some of their balloons sport logos for their dry cleaning company and a real estate agency, and thus turn flights into advertising opportunities. They’ve also started a hot air balloon ride business, Skyspan Adventures. “We did that so Troy can still be in the air,” she says.
While he still plans to assault additional records, Bradley says he enjoys every aspect of the sport, even initiating newcomers to their first balloon ride. “I still get just as excited as I did 20 years ago.”
Meanwhile, the grandfather who taught Troy to fly, James Dutrow, 76, runs his own balloon ride business in Colorado and visits Albuquerque for the balloon festival with his wife, Helen, 85.
“It keeps me in the air,” he says.
As the Bradleys drive onto the balloon festival grounds, a flame momentarily flares in the pre-dawn sky, a gas-powered burst meant to slowly inflate one of the brilliantly colored hot air balloons soon to fill the grassy expanse on the outskirts of Albuquerque.
The flash catches daughter Savannah’s attention. “Fire, fire,” she says in a sleepy singsong from the back of the van driven by her father.
“And what does the fire make the balloons do?” asks her mother.
“Makes them go up. Go up,” comes the reply of experience from a half-dozen flights. “She’s pretty obsessed,” Tami Bradley explains.
Dutrow gave Savannah her first ride when she was 6 months old, a great-grandfather continuing a legacy. And the Bradleys hope Dutrow also initiates their youngest, Bobby.
“Kids are a huge part of the experience,” Troy Bradley says. “Colorful balloons and colorful people.”