Granthams use love of ballooning to help people with disabilities

The Southwest Regional Balloon Club invited Fly the Rainbow to the area for Saturday’s event. SWRBC hosts a yearly balloon rally, such as the one in 2007 pictured above. (Photo by Jim Jarrett)

The pilots of Fly The Rainbow organization have a long history in ballooning. They made what was a hobby into a successful business.

Carolyn Grantham will be piloting the balloon for the Fly The Rainbow event Saturday morning. She and her husband, Russ, are the chief pilots for the Fly The Rainbow balloon.

The organization was started to give disabled people a chance to fly in a hot air balloon. The Granthams took over as chief pilots after former chief pilot and co-founder Terry Drake’s death in a helicopter accident in 2004.

Carolyn Grantham said she and Russ were living in San Diego in 1986 and had gone to Albuquerque for a business trip during the week before the International Balloon Fiesta. Although she had an uncle who was a balloon pilot, she said she had never flown before that autumn day.

“My uncle had hot air balloons. He was one of the first guys to do it in the 60s,” said Carolyn. When the couple saw him at the balloon fiesta, her uncle talked her into the basket of his balloon.

“The next thing I know, I’m in the air, desperately afraid of heights and white-knuckled,” said Carolyn.

Forty-five minutes later, she said, she was hooked. Her husband had joined the ground crew chasing after the balloon. When they had the opportunity to move to Albuquerque four years later, Carolyn and Russ said they jumped on it, hoping to also become balloon pilots. Within another four years, they both had their commercial piloting licenses.

The couple eventually bought a company called World Balloon and piloted for a number of commercial balloons, including a giant cow balloon for Creamland Dairy. Other companies they represented include Conoco, American Movie Classics, Wonder Bread and Sinclair Oil.

“We traveled thousands and thousands of miles for various clients,” said Russ, noting that the couple did a 50-state tour for American Movie Classics.

The company also had one of the few flying schools in the country to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The couple sold the business in 2004 and both are now pursuing other interests. Russ, a former aerospace engineer, described himself as “mostly retired,” but still teaches classes. Carolyn works for the University of New Mexico hospital.

But both Russ and Carolyn remain involved in ballooning. Carolyn still flies a Smokey Bear balloon for Friends of Smokey Bear, a group dedicated to promoting conservation and fire prevention.

Russ said he will not be attending the Lubbock event Saturday because he has to teach a class but said Carolyn is the primary pilot for most of the tethered events anyway. This is because she is lighter, and weight matters when tying a balloon to the ground and trying to keep it controlled, he said.

Wind speeds will be considered Saturday morning, even though the balloon won’t go higher than 60 to 70 feet, Russ said. If the wind speed is more than seven miles per hour, the event could be cancelled, he said.

“I would say we’re conservative, especially when you carry passengers that might be a little bit frail. A lot of times, we carry elderly and things like this, so we have to be very careful,” said Russ.

Balloons are designed to fly, not to be tethered, Carolyn said.

“Tethering is difficult at best,” she said. “But there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than tethering that balloon.”

The Fly The Rainbow experience is rewarding, Carolyn said.

“This is one of the most special balloon programs there is,” she said. “Just to watch the looks on their faces is amazing.”

Russ said everyone involved with the organization feels the same way.

“The first time you see a kid, or even an adult, who has never been in a balloon or even expected they’d have a chance, you see the look in their face. That is a reward to us,” said Russ.

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