Up, up and away: Balloonist Brian Dial enjoys family involvement in ballooning as Jubilee approaches

By Bruce McLellan | Living 50 Plus

Flying north from Hartselle toward Decatur in his hot-air balloon decorated with strips of bright colors, Brian Dial found himself in a jam.

A relatively new balloon pilot at the time, he wanted to land before his flight got too long. But as he hovered over woods near Flint, there were no large openings for a landing.

“We had been flying for a while, and this was our second landing attempt,” Dial said. “Options ahead were less appealing, and being a new pilot, I wanted to avoid reaching city congestion and power lines.”

He radioed to his son Brady in a chase vehicle to be ready on Bowles Bridge Road.

“Beyond that there was nothing but swamp and the city,” Brian Dial said.

He planned to throw his drop line toward the road so the balloon could gradually be pulled to earth in a tight landing zone. The procedure depended on Brady being able to position himself perfectly to catch the drop line, a rope attached to the balloon.

“My son, he prides himself on getting there (before the balloon),” Dial said.

Brady did anticipate his father’s flight path and was able to catch the drop line and begin pulling the balloon down for pinpoint landing.

“If he had not been there, I’d have been in quite a pickle,” Dial said.

It was fitting that a family member helped Dial, 53, handle the challenge. Family provided the encouragement for him to take up a new hobby in his 40s and is the reason he continues ballooning. He’s involved in the Alabama Jubilee, held annually on Memorial Day weekend in Decatur, and will be the event’s balloonmeister overseeing flights this year.

“I’ve always had to have some kind of hobby,” Dial said. “When I was younger, it was skydiving.

“As I had kids, that became the hobby. As they started reaching college years, I told my wife I had always wanted a balloon. When I was in my teens and 20s, I had crewed for some of the local pilots … but financially couldn’t buy a balloon or become a pilot at the time.”

His wife, Beth, supported his desire to get into ballooning in 2014.

“She said, ‘Well, why don’t you get one.’”

“I talked to one of the local pilots who is also an instructor, got a few tips and found a balloon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota,” Dial said.

The Sioux Falls balloon was what Dial called a perfect “starter’s kit” with a 20-year-old balloon and equipment.

“It was just the perfect opportunity,” Dial said. “There was a guy in his 70s who was getting out of ballooning. I called his repair shop, and talked to them about the history of the balloon and how it was taken care of.”

A previous owner had named the balloon Feathers because that’s what the vertical strips of color on the envelope resemble. Dial and Brady brainstormed names on their trip to Sioux Falls to purchase the balloon and came up with Bandit in tribute to the radio exchanges and black Trans Am driven by Burt Reynolds in the movie “Smokey and the Bandit.”

“The balloon is mainly black and ‘Bandit One to Bandit Two’ on the radio sounded fun, so it just stuck,” Dial said.

Soon, the entire family was involved with flights, helping unpack the 800 pounds of balloon and equipment, going for rides and joining the chase to meet the balloon at its landing spot and pack everything back up.

“What I’ve loved about it since then is it really has been a family event, or family activity I should say,” Dial said. “It brings all the family together. Everybody loves being a part and crewing and chasing the balloon. That’s the one thing that really keeps me doing this.

“I started it because I like learning new things and doing new things. … But keeping the family together is really what keeps me going with it.”

Cathy Wahl, a longtime local pilot and Jubilee volunteer, also appreciates the family aspect of ballooning. Her husband Mike is a pilot, as is their son Robbie. Daughter Molly Davis participated in ballooning when she was still at home.

“We brought up our kids doing it,” Cathy Wahl said. It was enjoyable “just getting out and doing something together. They learned a lot about ballooning just being around it.”

Crew’s importance

Brian and Beth Dial have four children combined, and he says a large family is an advantage with supplying crew members.

It takes four people to get the balloon ready to fly.

“With a good crew we can have the balloon unpacked, (inflated) and ready for flight in about 15 minutes,” he said. “The pack up after flight can be done in about the same amount of time with a good strong crew.”

Packing up is only part of the chase crew’s job.

“The chase part, you need somebody that’s going to be there when you land,” Brian Dial said. “It’s a challenge in itself. It’s very easy to lose sight of it, and we don’t always land in the best place. We go where the wind takes us.”

He said being part of a crew is “fun for all ages. If we got a 5-year-old out there, we’re going to put them to work and make sure they have a good time.”

The Tennessee River is the dominant feature for balloonists in the Decatur area.

“My favorite flights are over the river,” Dial said. “We have that beautiful view. Now, the river can be an obstacle to flights. You have to make sure you have enough wind to make it over the river. It’s not a narrow river.”

During the Jubilee, flights take off from Point Mallard adjacent to the river and the view is even more exhilarating.

“The Jubilee festival is an exciting atmosphere with all the spectators, music and many activities around the park. Lifting off to see all this as a panoramic view, seeing the (Point Mallard) Aquatic Center, the surrounding city, the river, 60 balloons flying with you in the sky, all with the music from the bands, is just an amazing experience.”

Getting started

Flying a balloon isn’t as simple as inflating what’s called the envelope and taking off. Pilots have to study safety regulations, learn proper techniques and take test flights. Dial said it took him about a year to get his pilot’s license.

Equipment also has to be in good condition.

“We go through annual inspections,” Dial said. “They do stress tests on the envelope. … If it ever fails those tests, you can replace the fabric and keep using the basket, the instruments, the burners.”

He said a used balloon can cost $10,000 to $15,000.

“While that might be sticker shock to some, that’s actually less than the cost of a boat,” he said.

The best way to get started is “get involved with a crew,” he said. “The local pilots are always looking for crew.”

And he has advice for anyone approaching middle age and interested in trying a new pursuit, whether it’s ballooning or some other adventure.

“If you’ve got something you’ve always wanted to do, just do it,” he said. “I often hear, “I want to go up in a balloon. It’s on my bucket list. And my first thought is, ‘Well do it.’”

“There’s no reason not to, especially here. We have the advantage of being a ballooning community.”

He has no plans to stop ballooning anytime soon with a regular crew that, in addition to Beth and Brady, includes daughters Abbi Dial, Savanna Davis and Shianna Snider along with his sister Heather Naron, her husband Jason and their children Landon Naron and Brileigh Horton.

“As long as the family is coming out and having a good time and coming together,” Dial said, “I’ll continue to do it.”