Such great heights — Balloon pilot has fear of heights

Published 1:40 pm Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Submitted Photo Bob Pulaski, a hot-air balloon pilot and Pineville resident, has a fear of heights, but competes in balloon races across the U.S. to face his fear. Pulaski said he is still scared of heights.

PINEVILLE, La. — For someone afraid of heights and edges, Pineville resident Bob Pulaski sure spends a lot of time hanging in the air.

“I thought maybe if I learned how to fly, I’d get over the fear,” Pulaski said.

His fascination with hot-air ballooning took off in the early 1980s when he and his wife, Maureen, visited a balloon rally in Houston, Texas.

“I would say there were about 30 balloons taking off in small parking lot,” Pulaski said. “There was a KOOL balloon, that’s back when cigarettes were still around, and a Playboy balloon with the big rabbit head and a crew of bunnies. I turned to my wife and said, ‘I’m gonna fly balloons.’ She said, ‘You’re an idiot.’

Pulaski's ballon

Pulaski said to face his fear, he first considered becoming a traditional pilot, but flying airplanes was too expensive, and he said he wasn’t exactly rich.

Not too long after the idea inflated, Pulaski was trained to fly hot-air balloons while living in El Paso, Texas in 1983.

“But I didn’t have anything to fly,” Pulaski said. “I hopped around countryside, visiting and hooking up with pilots. I bought my first balloon, second hand, in 1991, and I’ve been flying regularly ever since.”

But has Pulaski conquered his fear?

“No, still afraid,” Pulaski said. “I get close to about 1,000 feet, and start shaking a bit, hanging on tighter to things in the basket — the handles in basket, not the passengers.”

He said Maureen is a good supporter and helper, though she’s not exactly crazy about the idea.

“To her, it’s kind of scary,” Pulaski said. “I take off at the mercy of wind. If I do something wrong, I’ll come back down, but not in good shape.”

Pulaski said he has been attending the Great Mississippi Balloon Race in the Miss-Lou before he had his own balloon, and was interested in getting involved as a pilot after obtaining one. Pulaski has been a pilot at the Mississippi race for approximately nine years. He said the Miss-Lou is a scenic, but challenging, place to fly.

“It’s an interesting place to fly,” Pulaski said. “You’ve got the river obstacle if winds are going in the wrong direction, and swamps of Vidalia side, which means you might fly for long time, or get your feet wet. Flying east, you get out of town real quick. But on a good day when winds are light, it’s a nice area to fly — especially to go with the river, it’s really scenic. We enjoy Natchez, it’s a nice crowd, and Sally (Durkin, pilot organizer) does a fine job.”

Two festival organizers, Babs Price and Eugenie Cates, said pilots are given the uplifting treatment when they come to Natchez — which might be part of the reason they enjoy visiting Natchez. Some pilots say, next to the Albuquerque, N.M., balloon race, Natchez is their favorite.

The Pulaskis recently returned from Albuquerque. Even floating over the breathtaking scenes of New Mexico, Pulaski said he never quite gets comfortable.

“After the third or fourth day in Albuquerque straight, you start to hear all the creaks and groans,” Pulaski said. “But we make sure we have a lot of control, and only fly when winds are light.”

The weather, so far, is looking good in the Miss-Lou for the 26th annual event, with sunny skies, light winds and highs in the 80s.