Rich Jaworski can’t get enough of seeing his passengers delight in floating in the basket of his hot air balloon. He likes giving people a trip they’ve never experienced.
It’s a trip that can be surprisingly quiet and peaceful. The burner on the balloon becomes background noise.
“It’s a satisfaction to go out and see birds in their nest and animals on the ground and fly over, two to three feet from them,” Rich said. “It does things for people.”
“Monarchs and mosquitos fly with you,” he said. “They are the only ones that fly that high.”
The retired Blair resident, now 71, has launched his hot air balloons since the 1970s and calls his company Euphoria, named for his red balloon. Euphoria can be spotted floating over the Elkhorn Valley when weather conditions are perfect April through October in the late afternoon.
Giving passengers that experience is part of what he’s been able to do with his hobby that became a retirement business. He’s set records for lone flights. He’s trained many other balloonists.
He’s published articles about his flights in Ballooning, the journal of the Balloon Federation of America. Several times, he has been state champion of the Nebraska Balloon Club, and in 2002 he was a national champion.
He had worked 37 years for OPPD, spending a couple of extra years there so he could continue to fund his hobby, Rich said. He had earned a doctorate degree in nuclear engineering and became a registered nuclear engineer.
Before his family became too busy, his wife, Paula, and their children joined him on flights and they took ballooning vacations to attend rallies. His friends helped out on the crew, and he made many more friends over the years.
What he says means the most is what he’s given people on their once-in-a-lifetime ride.
“It brings joy and happiness to people,” Rich said. “It also creates a story. Every flight is a story.”
He loves to hear those stories from his passengers.
He recalls a 97-year-old lady whose family “took her out of a nursing home and put her in my basket.”
“She had osteoporosis and was almost blind,” Rich said. “She stood in the back of the basket and had a wonderful time. Everybody was so excited to have her come. She said to me, ‘You are never too old to do anything new.’”
Now, his passengers are enjoying the fall colors in a way very few people can. Those who were unable to fly earlier this year are busy getting in their flights before the weather turns, he said. When the weather does not cooperate for a launch, the flights have to be rescheduled.
Most launches are made during the cooler hours of the day, at dawn or two to three hours before sunset, when winds are light and allow for easier launches and landings. Flying at those times avoids thermals, vertical air currents, that make it harder to control a balloon.
He recently flew from Leshara, a frequent launching place, and landed south of Valley. His passengers were three members of the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, people that Rich said “make miracles restoring the life to accident victims.”
Other experiences he treasures come from the stories of people on the ground who spotted the balloon.
Once, after he landed his red balloon on a Sunday morning near Fremont, his crew went to a farmhouse to ask permission to go into the field. The crew reported a man was sitting outside the house on his porch, red-faced, and he seemed to be upset. He gave them permission to go in his field.
The man’s daughter called Rich a few days later. She said her father, who they had encountered outside his house, had lost his wife the day before.
“Mom always said she would go to heaven in a red balloon,” the daughter told Rich.
The balloonist said he also likes to talk to schoolchildren about his hobby and has visited many schools. He tells students to stay in school and get a good job to be able to pursue hobbies like ballooning.
Rich has continued to seek “high adventure” of his own. This summer, he and four friends took his balloon to Colorado and launched it from different places.
“It was so nice to see the Rockies instead of cornfields,” he said.
He’s not done setting goals for himself. His goal this winter is to complete a 300-mile flight. He will be looking for 40-below temperatures which means his fuel tanks will last as long as possible.
“The last time, it took three years to get the right conditions,” he said.
He is the world-record holder in AX-4 and AX-5 duration flights, 23 hours 11 minutes, and AX-4 distance of 250 miles.
The AX number refers to the size of the balloon. He uses the smaller balloons for his long distance flights and the larger ones to carry passengers.
He relies on crews of experts to launch him, keep track of him on the flight and pick him up after landing. These are people who are open to new things, he said. He’s worn some people out who no longer see the allure in getting up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday in the winter to help launch a balloon, he said.
“It’s work,” Rich said. “It’s fun.”
“Special flights teach you things,” he said. “A balloon presents many different kinds of problems and issues. There is always something to tend to.”
He has perfected what to wear to stay warm, what food to take and how much he can nap on the long flights.
Rich said he has slowed down a bit, logging 180 hours some years, but last year he flew 97 hours.
With more grandchildren on the way, he and Paula plan to travel more to see them.
Does he have time for other hobbies besides flying balloons?
He bicycles, swims, lifts weights and hikes.
“I work out every day so I can do this when I’m 80 years old,” he said. “It pretty much took over everything.”