I wanted to be everything that was exciting — fireman, tree climber, painter, carpenter, bridge builder, train engineer, crane operator.
What made you interested in flying hot air balloons?
I was naturally attracted to balloons, as are most people. Balloons are mystifying. They are large, beautiful orbs that naturally attract people as they float away on the wind using the fire from our burners to make us rise into the sky.
How long does it take to earn a license to become a balloon pilot?
A Balloon Pilots Certificate can take from as little as three weeks to upwards of one to three years depending on how you approach it and go about getting your instruction. If you go to a certified pilot school and pay for your training, it can go as quickly as two to three weeks. If you volunteer and crew with a balloon pilot who can give you your instruction in trade for crewing on a balloon team, depending on location and weather, it can take longer. Most new pilots get their Private Pilot’s Certificate first and then move on to get their Commercial Certificate one to two years later.
What is the most interesting thing you have traveled over while flying?
The Earth below. The ground, the trees, buildings, the changing of seasons, rivers and lakes, all make each and every flight magical. No two flights are ever the same. If you fly with your eyes and ears wide open, the Earth unfolds with all of its exciting things below. Probably flying over a nesting bird rookery in the Eureka, Missouri Meramec River Valley and seeing hundreds of new fledgling birds look up from their nests. Flying over the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka is probably the coolest when the wolf groups all ‘alarm/call’ and check in with their howling.
What is your favorite trip you’ve ever taken in a balloon?
Flying in front of the Grand Teton Mountains in Wyoming is something I have tried to do every year for the last 35 plus years.
When flying, do you know your destination already, or is it really just where the wind takes you?
Most balloon flights are pre-planned in their duration and destination through pre-flight planning. We study the winds and the weather and then pick a launch site that will allow us to fly to a general destination. We are at the mercy of the wind as far as being able to steer the balloon somewhat.
The 43rd Annual St. Louis Forest Park Balloon Race is coming up. How many years have you flown in this race?
I think this will be my 35th year of attendance; I missed a few years while on the road with corporate balloons.
Have you ever won the Great Forest Park Balloon Race?
Yes, I have won the race and have placed in second and third several times over the years. The Forest Park Balloon Race is NOT a race but an exhibition for the spectators with some very friendly competition thrown in. There is no money or prizes involved. The first place winner is usually awarded a broken toaster as his or her prize. Someone forgot to bring the toaster back from last year. I do have a 3x5 index card that says I was a second place winner from one year that was presented by the organizers and is now proudly displayed on my trophy wall.
Have you competed in other races? If so, how many and where?
Yes, for many years as a new, younger, corporate balloon pilot. I have traveled the United States with various corporate branded balloons. I have flown many branded balloons for Corporate Aerial Advertising around the country. I have been to many balloon events and national competitions flying balloons for corporate advertisers. In the corporate advertising world you are advertising and flying for exposure of the brand you are representing. This limits your real ability to compete in a true sense of the sport of competition.
Maybe I’m the only one with this question, but how exactly does a balloon race work, and how do you win? Is everyone traveling to the same final destination?
Most spectator balloon races are called or termed Hare-N-Hound Balloon Races, where typically a sponsored balloon is inflated and launched into flight first. Fifteen to 20 minutes later, the following balloons, called hounds, are launched and give chase of the first balloon. The Hare Balloon typically flies for a predetermined time and then lands in a very open and accessible area where the Hare balloon crew members will set out a target. A large X is placed on the ground and the other balloons have to drop or sometimes throw their weighted bean bag markers on the target. The winner is determined by the accuracy of the placement of the markers. Center of the X doesn’t always win. I have seen races and events with many markers piled one on top of another. I have also seen targets with no valid scores to measure. It is generally about the skill and accuracy and not how fast you get there.
Any tips for readers who plan on attending the balloon race? What is the best part or must-see event during the day?
Yes, remember that there is a Friday night balloon glow on Sept. 18. The race festivities begin around noon on Saturday, Sept. 19. Come early and make an afternoon of it with your family. Bring blankets and lawn chairs and be sure to get there early so you can secure your spot in the front rows. There is so much for families to do before, during and after the races in Forest Park: children's activities, sky diving, photo contest, food vendors, balloons, fireworks, and music. And, did I mention the Balloon Race? [The date] is easy to remember — it is always the third weekend in September.
Is there anything else you would like to add or that you think our readers should know?
Ballooning is a very open and friendly, family-oriented sport that anyone can become a part of. Balloon pilots always welcome people to join in our beautiful sport of ballooning. They are always looking for additional crew members to become part of their team. Most pilots today came through the ranks of volunteers and started out on a crew — lifting, toting and in general helping out with the various activities to get a balloon launched and landed. It is a fair weather sport and requires several members to make a flight happen. Don't be shy. Ask someone how to become a member of their balloon team. Write your name and number down and present it to a pilot or a crew member and let them know you want to be part of this great sport.
Mroz will be flying for Re/Max St. Louis in the 2015 Great Forest Park Balloon Race. Be sure to come out on Friday, Sept. 18 for the balloon glow and Saturday, Sept. 19 for the race to cheer on Mroz and the other pilots as they race, chase and entertain at one of St. Louis’s favorite fall events.
Melissa Nordmann is an event coordinator for the City of Dardenne Prairie and currently resides in St. Charles County. When she's not planning events for her local residents, she enjoys attending her sons' baseball games and hiking with her family in many of the area's fabulous parks.