Hot Air Balloons
Jeanne Gartner — photo: Max Nicely
While in nursing school at IUP, I was encouraged to read professional journals. I started to see advertisements about the travel nurse program. I was interested but had no experience, and held that idea on the back burner for several years.
It was after gaining a few years of nursing experience at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh that I hit the road as a travel nurse. My first assignment was in Hartford, Connecticut. I wanted to be within a day’s drive of home in case I hated it, and I’d always wanted to see a New England fall, so it seemed perfect. I loved it! I met new people and was able to travel out from that area and see so much more of New England, plus get to New York City. I was hooked on the area. But soon it was getting to be cold and, since I’ve always pretty much hated the winter, it was off to Honolulu for my next assignment (after a Christmas at home with family of course).
The beauty of the travel program was that you got to pick your start dates and could work them around whatever else was going on in your life. I met a lot of really neat people during those five months in Hawaii, but two particularly influenced me. One of them had a good friend named Gary who worked on cruise ships as a doctor (I tucked that idea away for future reference). The other friend was from Anchorage. She invited me to come home with her for the summer, and so I did—we were both off at the time. We had a ball! Her dad took us flying in his little four-seater plane—I thought I had died and gone to heaven: straight from Hawaii to a gorgeous Alaskan summer.
When it was time to work again in the fall, I had read about a big hot air balloon rally held each October in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I looked for and found a travel nurse assignment right in Albuquerque. The fall of 1988 was my first real balloon rally, and I was hooked. I looked into that sky full of several hundred balloons and told myself, “Someday I am going to do that!” It took me ten and a half years to finally realize that dream, but I did it.
During that time I was still a traveling nurse, crewing and chasing balloons when I had the opportunity. For a few years, I tried to schedule my assignments and time off so I could continue to go to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in October as a crew member, still holding onto my dream of flying one myself. In the meantime, my travel assignments landed me in El Paso, Phoenix, Winston-Salem, Charleston, S.C., a summer camp in North Carolina for a few summers, and finally to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
It was there—working the night shift on the third floor nursery, sitting in the chair rocking my babies at 6:30 a.m. while facing the harbor where all the ships were pulling in for the day—that the old idea of working cruise ships came back to me in a big way. I loved St. Thomas and I loved the islands, but if I was on one of those ships I could visit even more islands and more places. So after I tried settling in Pittsburgh for a year and just couldn’t do it, I started applying to cruise lines.
The first to hire me was the Big Red Boat, based out of Port Canaveral in Florida, doing three- and four-day runs to the Bahamas (at the time they were associated with Disney World). It was an introduction to the world of cruising, but still not quite what I was looking for. It was essentially a shuttle boat between two places—not a lot of travel involved—but I met wonderful people and enjoyed it for six months. That was when the phone call came from the company I had dreamed about working for—Holland America Line, the cruise line that Gary had pumped me so full of.
I immediately started sailing with them as a nurse, and enjoyed the job for nearly seven years. To say that they showed me the world would be an understatement. It really was a dream job. To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” Fortunately, the best of times outnumbered the bad times. I used to write a long-winded e-mail at the end of each cruise during my last few years, after I got a laptop, and sent it out to about a hundred people. It was actually my notes to myself, but I’d saved most of them—stories about the people on the ship, the passengers and crew, the places I visited, and all the things that happened in between… there were so many memories.
People always ask me about the highlights of that time. One of them certainly has to be the world cruise of ’96, literally sailing around the world in ninety-nine days and visiting all the places along the way. People also ask me what’s my favorite place. There are so many and I loved them all, but the U.S. Virgin Islands will always be high on my list, especially St. John—such a peaceful, beautiful place. Who could ask for more: Caribbean in the winter and Alaska in the summer, several summers spent in Europe, cruising the Baltic Sea in early summer and the Mediterranean from summer into fall. Late summers and early falls in New England and Eastern Canada were also highlights.
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But then, there was still that other dream in the back of my head—to fly a hot air balloon. One summer, some friends in Pittsburgh starting getting serious about being certified to fly and talked about taking the ground school together. I joined them, and we all attended ground school and took the written exam. But when it came time to actually get some burner time on a balloon, I found that the opportunity was very limited in Pittsburgh—there were so many people wanting to learn, and the season here is so short, with essentially one balloon available at the time. So after a friend in the El Paso area agreed to teach me, I arranged to visit there during a few breaks from my cruising time.
She wasn’t able to give me much time during that first summer, but when I went back in the winter she hooked me up with an instructor who was an excellent pilot. He had me certified within a month—we flew nearly every day of January in 1999, and by the beginning of February I had passed all of my tests and was a certified private balloon pilot.
Up until then, I had been borrowing my friend’s balloon. Now I wanted my own. Within three weeks I found a reasonable used one. I called that first balloon Holy Frijole—and how much fun I had with that little old used balloon! “Bean” is my nickname, and I wanted to use that somehow in the name of the balloon. Since I had learned and bought the balloon in the southwest, I wanted that flavor, too. So since Frijole is “bean” in Spanish, there it was!
I soon realized that if I wanted to be proficient at flying, it would not be practical to spend eight months a year at sea, so I gradually phased out of cruising. I tried working part-time for a while, then quit altogether. I haven’t sailed since December of 2000, and I don’t miss it as much as everyone told me I would. It was a wonderful time of my life, but I guess it was just time to move on.
Since then, I have taken contracts with a hospital in El Paso. I work there from September through May as a pediatric nurse and then take summers off to come home to Pittsburgh where I can spend time with my large family and friends. That way I am able to fly year-round.
Gartner's balloon has flown an American flag at every rally since September 11, 2001.
Our best flying during the winter is in the southwest—on cold, crisp, dry mornings we can fly forever (it’s too wet up here in Pittsburgh then). During the summer when it’s nearly too hot to fly down there, I bring the balloon back home and enjoy flying with my Pittsburgh buddies that helped me to get started. Many times throughout the year we go to several balloon rallies. The rallies last from three to ten days, and can have from thirty balloons to the 750 balloons that show up for the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, which I’m proud to say I’ve flown at for the last four years.
In January, we have a local rally in Las Cruces, New Mexico; February is time for the Friends and Lovers Rally in Albuquerque; May is the Wet ’n Wild Memorial Day Rally in El Paso; this July we headed off to Dayton, Ohio, for a ReMax rally at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, celebrating the Wright Brothers 100-year anniversary of flight; in August we took the balloon to near Montreal, Canada for a large Canadian festival—our third year there; then it was time to drive it back out west again in time for the Colorado Springs Labor Day rally, followed shortly after by the White Sands, New Mexico rally. The contrast of the beautiful colors of the balloons against the white gypsum sand dunes and clear blue sky is just awesome.
By October it was time for the big Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta—“mecca” as we balloonists call it—the biggest balloon rally in the world. December also has a few offerings of rallies. The best that I’ve been to then is out in Gallup, New Mexico, at Red Rocks State Park. The image of the balloons playing and floating up and down through the red rock canyons was pure magic.
A good friend and part of my balloon chase crew is also a 1983 IUP graduate, Cathy MacConnell. She does the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta and the Canada rally with me, and joins me when I’m home in Pittsburgh for the summers.
My favorite pictures are the ones of the balloon flying a large American flag (10’ by 19’). We’ve been flying it at every rally since September 11. It was donated by one of our crew members who was in the Army many years ago in Germany. The flag was about to be destroyed as surplus, but he said he’d take it. He was never able to fly such a large flag, however, so after 9-11, when it was nearly impossible to find a large flag, he loaned it to us. The Albuquerque Fiesta was about three weeks after 9-11 and it was a pretty emotional time, but the show did go on. Unfortunately, this crew member and good friend died this year, and now we fly it for him as well as for the victims/heroes/family members of 9-11 and for all of the military personnel.
As for my current and second balloon: Since “Cool Beans!” is my favorite expression, Cool Beans! she is. As we like to say, “It’s not just a name, it’s a statement!”