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Curious Alaska: What happened to hot air ballooning in Anchorage?

Hot air balloons prepare to launch from East High School in the mid-1980s. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

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Question: When I first moved to Anchorage, one would regularly see hot air balloons dotting the skies around Anchorage and Eagle River. Now, they’re gone. What happened? Was there some change in regulations, or in insurance? What would need to be done to bring them back?

Curious Alaska: For a time, Anchorage was hot air balloon heaven. Then cocaine and insurance costs ruined everything.

Well, not exactly. But the tale of what happened to hot air ballooning in Anchorage reflects broader change in a young city.

Anchorage’s balloon days seem to have commenced in the 1970s. Mike Bauwens thinks he brought the first hot air balloon to Anchorage, around 1976.

He quickly found a core group of other young balloon enthusiasts in town. Back then, a balloon setup cost only about $5,000, he said, and the Anchorage Bowl boasted the magical combination of plenty of undeveloped land and favorable weather.

On windless days in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a multicolored parade of a half-dozen or more balloons could be seen drifting above the asphalt and forest of a fast-growing Anchorage. Restaurants and banks even advertised via floating billboards.

A hot air balloon drifts low on the east side of Anchorage behind Providence Hospital Sunday morning on October 6, 1991. (Jim Lavrakas / ADN archive)

Bauwens remembers the late-1970s scene as halcyon days of wild, unfettered fun in the skies over Anchorage.

“We’d take off from Rabbit Creek, maybe go north toward the Park Strip,” he said in a recent interview. “Just fly all over town. Buzzin’ everybody. No regulations. We just stopped in yards.”

Landing in the parking lot of a Brown Jug liquor store meant a free bottle of Champagne, according to Bauwens. There were organized solstice races, and a Fur Rendezvous balloon race that drew dozens of rainbow-colored balloons. In the early 1980s, a group called the Alaska Air Mushers would hold balloon “rallies,” launching up to 15 balloons together.

“Anchorage could be on its way to unseating Albuquerque as the hot-air balloon capital of the country,” one Anchorage Times story from 1982 boasted.

Then in the mid-1980s, the balloons started disappearing. They’ve never really come back, though at least one Anchorage man would like to see a revival.

“People were very supportive of it,” said Jim Rogina, a longtime Anchorage resident and hot air balloon operator and designer, in an interview recently. “But times changed.”

During that era, a certain mischief took hold among a faction of the balloonist society — including cocaine use, breaking FAA rules and irresponsible flying, according to Rogina. In the early 1980s, the president of the local balloonist club was a restaurant owner who’d earned a felony conviction for burning down a rival restaurant.

Some began to associate the hot air balloon scene with reckless behavior, Rogina said.

“It sort of set the tone for things,” he said.

Hot air balloons drift in Anchorage in the mid-1980s. (ADN archive)

Around the same time, some of Anchorage’s most hardcore balloonists — like Bauwens — moved away. (He ended up in Park City, Utah, where he is today considered among the preeminent hot air ballooning instructors.)

Then Anchorage ballooning took another blow: Around 1986 or 1987, insurance companies refused to sell liability insurance to hot air balloon operators in Alaska.

“YOU CAN’T TAKE ‘EM UP WITHOUT INSURANCE, BALLOONISTS CAN’T BUY IT, SO THEY’RE GROUNDED,” a 1987 Daily News headline lamented.

The insurance crunch is widely seen as the final blow for hot air ballooning as a hobby in Anchorage. But in both Bauwens and Rogina’s estimation, the insurance wasn’t the whole story: A changing city and changing society also contributed to the decline.

Over the years, the city filled in with roads and businesses in places that had once been wide open fields or gravel pits. Anchorage airspace became even more crowded.

Rogina still loves hot air ballooning.

Jim Rogina stands with one of his hot air balloon baskets outside his home in Anchorage on Thursday, April 29, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

In 2008, he tried to kindle a renaissance of sorts, founding a nonprofit to organize an Alaska World Balloon Challenge event. He hoped it would draw expert hot air balloon pilots from around the world but struggled to get necessary cooperation from the numerous government agencies involved. The Alaska World Balloon Challenge never happened.

Hot air balloons prepare to launch from East High School in the mid-1980s. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

He still lives on the Hillside, in a house that’s filled with at least six hot air balloons, including large wicker baskets and hundreds of pounds of massive balloon fabric. It’s been years since Rogina has seen a hot air balloon lift into Anchorage’s skies.

He has all the necessary regulatory permissions to fly his balloons but rarely does — at least in Anchorage. There are many hassles, he said.

“The consensus was, if you’re going to fly over Anchorage, you’re going to have to deal with multiple law enforcement complaints,” he said. “That’s the kind of culture we have.”

In his garage, filled with designs and inventions to make hot air balloons lighter and safer, Rogina is thinking about the future too. He’d love to hear from people who want to get into ballooning.

“I’m ready to help,” he said.

Bauwens wants to fly in Alaska again too. A dream is to have a helicopter take him into Lake George, near Knik Glacier, and float down the Knik River Valley.

“Alaska was the best,” he said. “There wasn’t anything better.”

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