Sunday Sit-down: John J. Kelley

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John J. Kelley grew up in Arizona, but fell in love with New England and its four seasons when he attended his sister’s wedding in Whitinsville in 1981 and never left.


The self-described “adrenaline junkie” who has a “huge bucket list,” said he believes “if it’s out there to do” he’s “going to do it.” In the early 1980s, after learning to scuba dive, he became a divemaster and taught scuba. He has also volunteered with the American Power Boat Association as a safety and rescue diver at boat races. He zip-lines and goes whitewater rafting with his teen daughter. He has biked, hiked or kayaked all over New England. One of his latest ventures is competitive go-kart racing at Pomfret Speedway in Connecticut. He is also a ski instructor and hot air balloon pilot.


When was your first ride in a hot air balloon?

“In 1992, I bought a gift certificate from a balloon company in Worcester, to take my first wife for a balloon ride for her birthday. The weather did not cooperate, but we eventually flew a few weeks later and I was in love, with both my wife and ballooning. It was so unique to float aimlessly not knowing where you were going, so quietly across the sky.” 

When and how did you become a hot air balloon pilot and what are the requirements?

“After that first ride, the pilot invited me out to crew for him, and that is where it all started. After a couple of years of crewing and piloting with another pilot onboard, I went to ground school to learn about weather and technical things about how the balloons work. Once I got the required flying hours for my private and commercial pilot licenses, I took the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) written exams. I flew with the examiner at Dingley Dell Balloon Port in Brimfield for the final test before receiving my licenses in 2001. It generally costs $8,000 to $10,000 to complete requirements for a license. Annual recertification is required.” 

Do you own a hot air balloon?

“I do not own a balloon now. I fly for Pioneer Valley Balloons, a hot air balloon ride company in Northampton. I have owned and flown several balloons over the years. My favorite balloon was blue and black and named Excalibur. Regular hot air balloons cost between $15,000 and $35,000. They last for 500 hours in the air and then have to be replaced because the heat and stress break the fabric down. Balloons are inspected annually or every 100 hours by the FAA.” 

Tell me about some of your favorite experiences while up in a hot air balloon.

“Flying on a Saturday morning really high at dawn, and watching the sunrise, then dropping down 3,000 feet and watching the sunrise again because of the curve of the earth. 

Flying in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the International Balloon Fiesta, the world’s largest balloon festival with 700 other balloons in the air with you … all the organized chaos of taking off and landing together with 50,000 screaming spectators below.


Flying young couples knowing someone was going to get a marriage proposal either during or right after a flight.”


What’s the greatest part of being a hot air balloon pilot?

“Taking a stranger for the first time and showing them how cool the world is from a different perspective. Also, having my entire family involved. Without their support and physical effort, this would not be possible. ” 

What’s the cost of a flight?


“$325 for an hour per person.”


Weather must have everything to do with when a balloon can go up. What are the ideal conditions?

“When the winds are calm at dawn and dusk. The winds should be less than six knots (roughly 7 mph) and the weather pattern for a couple hundred miles around you is picture perfect. When gliders fly or birds soar on the thermals, we don’t fly.” 

How safe is it to ride in a hot air balloon? Last month, three people died in Virginia after the hot air
balloon they were in struck a power line and burst into flames as the pilot attempted to land.

“Pilot discretion and education are probably the single most important factor and with today’s technology with weather, ballooning is very safe.” 

Have you ever had a close call or unsafe experience while up in a hot air balloon?

“Yes. Every pilot has. When I took my second wife, Beth, for her first flight, the weather report was for the winds to diminish at sunset, but that didn’t happen. We flew from Auburn to Grafton and had to use the air brakes (grazing the basket in the trees to slow it). We might have grazed them a little lower than I intended, causing the balloon to rock back and forth like a pendulum while still going forward. We flew over a house very low, right beside the chimney as Beth proceeded to hang on for dear life to the propane tanks while the other pilot and I talked with people on the ground and threw out a landing strap to get them to help us come to a stop in the middle of a cul de sac. The neighborhood had underground utilities, making it a great place to land. It was a great stand-up landing, although the only other time Beth has flown with me is when we got married in a balloon June 7, 2008.” 

You also work at Wachusett Mountain Ski Area in Princeton?

“Yes. I learned to ski with my children at Wachusett Mountain when I was 40. When I turned 50, I decided to take the instructor-training course. I’ve been teaching for five years. It’s awesome. I love teaching first-timers because that’s where the most improvement occurs. Getting a hug from a little girl or boy as a thank you. Or a handshake from an older child (sometimes as old as 70) is the most rewarding thing that can happen to you on that mountain. I enjoy hearing kids yell my name months later to show me how well they are now skiing. Every time I’m on that bunny hill with a first-timer, it’s like my first time again.” 

What adventures do you have on your bucket list?

“Fly a 32-passenger hot air balloon over the Serengeti plains in Africa. I just think it will be so cool. How many people can say they watched lions, giraffes and other wild animals from a balloon and then land amongst them? In the meantime, I plan to go to Cedar Point Amusement Park (in Sandusky, Ohio) and ride all 42 roller coasters there. I’m a big kid. I admit it.” 


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