Scott and Laurie Spencer are the first people I thought of when I saw the gut-wrenching headline about 16 people killed in a hot air balloon crash outside Austin, Texas, last weekend.
A month after the worst balloon accident in United States history, the friendly Boise couple will be responsible for 50 hot air balloons lifting off from Ann Morrison Park at the 25th anniversary of the Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic.
“The timing,” Scott says, “couldn’t be worse.”
His initial reaction to the Texas catastrophe? “I dropped a couple F-bombs,” he admits.
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“Then you go very quickly to the families involved,” Scott continues somberly. “Like ... the devastation that didn’t have to happen. We knew within 20 minutes exactly what happened to this guy.”
I’m not 100-percent sure why I felt the need to phone Scott this week. Was it to reassure Boiseans that the hot air balloons soon to fill our skyline will be 100-percent safe? Was it to convince myself? I’ve flown twice. Laurie took my wife and me on a relaxing, beautiful jaunt a few years ago.
All I know is that when I hung up, I was reminded once again why the Spencers and their company, Lighter Than America, are in charge of producing Boise’s balloon celebration. It’s the same reason they’re the only pilots honored with the task of flying the iconic, Mickey Mouse-shaped balloon for the Walt Disney Company. Or that high-profile official Coca-Cola balloon.
If there’s pilot error in the Spencer skies, it involves being overly cautious.
Scott has nixed the flights seven times over the years at the Spirit of Boise. “At least three of those times that I canceled, we probably could have flown,” he says. “It’s just not worth the risk.”
“If it’s not perfect,” Scott explains, “I’m gonna cancel the flight.”
Can you imagine the repercussions if Mickey Mouse — officially named The Happiest Balloon on Earth — malfunctioned at one of those gigantic corporate Disney events? Or if Laurie Spencer hadn’t safely delivered James Franco onto Hollywood Boulevard for his entrance to “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in 2013? (To create the illusion that Franco was piloting alone, Laurie hunkered down and tapped the actor from behind to let him know when to fire the burner. “She liked that,” Scott, 61, jokes. “Better her than me.”)
“We’ve done major, major promotions for our clients that they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on,” Scott says. “And the weather has not been perfect, and they allow me to say ‘no’ without any kind of retribution or second thought. You either do it safe or you don’t do it. That takes an incredible amount of pressure off of us.”
You’ve probably heard about the troubled Texas flier: Four DUIs, two prison stints and 40 past customer complaints. A small-time commercial pilot, he’s the type of operator that experienced professionals refer to as a “hand-to-mouther,” Scott says. “He doesn’t eat if he doesn’t fly.”
“It’s one of those things that could have been prevented. We knew of this guy, and we knew of some of the problems he’s had in the past. Certainly not to speak ill of the deceased, but he had some challenges.”
Several balloons went out that morning, Scott says, but only one left the ground. It wound up crashing into power lines, probably while trying to land. “It never should have been in the air,” Scott says.
“There were so many things working against him. You have to understand, the conditions down there are so much different than they are here. It’s very gentle here. If you’re going to live in Texas and fly hot air balloons, you’d better be ready to fly in 10-mile-an-hour winds all the time.”
If the wind blows like that in Boise?
“You don’t even get out of bed.”
Chances are, there will be perfect weather in Ann Morrison Park from Aug. 31-Sept. 4. The most popular part of the event — the Nite Glow — involves tethered hot air balloons. With 25 balloons appearing in the glow-in-the-dark party this year (twice as many as usual), organizers are hoping for an even larger crowd than the usual 30,000 people.
Either way, Boiseans don’t seem fazed by the Texas headlines.
“I’ve had more inquiries for rides this week than probably the last month and a half combined,” Scott says.
The one thing people do ask him about is that 16-passenger size. Turns out, that’s big but not ridiculously massive. “They’re flying 36 people in Africa on some of these safari flights,” Scott says. “There’s a 30-passenger balloon over in Orlando flying.”
Don’t worry because of the Texas crash, he says. “This is an isolated incident.”
But if you are a little uneasy? He understands. Like many experts speaking after this tragedy, Scott believes the hot air balloon industry needs better oversight.
A Boise native, Scott celebrated the 46th anniversary of his first flight in February. Even with thousands of trips under his belt, imagining that accident is tough to stomach.
“I’m telling you, the whole thing took maybe 5 seconds,” he says. “We’re so fragile that it’s crazy.”