UNM graduate student flourishes as balloon crew member and RC balloon operator

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Deiter Hanbicki, originally from Pennsylvania, grew up in the hot air balloon industry. His parents operated their own hot air balloon ride business throughout his childhood, which fueled Hanbicki’s early affinity for the sport. Today, he is a graduate student in nuclear engineering at the University of New Mexico and a self-proclaimed balloon enthusiast, flying and competing across the country.

Hanbicki is part of the 222 balloon crew, who oversees the mustached balloon named Guilty, owned and operated by crew chief Caryn Welz and her husband, Zerek, who is the pilot. They also often participate in balloon competitions outside of the state. This balloon is a running ball, which is able to pass through the air with greater efficiency, according to Hanbicki.

This year, in addition to crewing the 222 balloon with Welz at Balloon Fiesta, Hanbicki will be piloting his remote control balloon for several days of the event. Hanbicki said it was the first time the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has used RC balloons.

Hanbicki said the buzz around RC balloons, which are physically smaller than standard hot air balloons, picked up before the pandemic because a “critical mass” of individuals were either in Albuquerque or coming to town to fly them. Abundant free time during the pandemic prompted Hanbicki to build his own specially shaped bumblebee RC balloon.

“We’re going to fly (tied up) while all the other balloons are taking off around us,” Hanbicki said.

With the 222 balloon crew at the Fiesta, Hanbicki acts as a crew chief and educates inexperienced crew members on how to carry out their responsibilities with the full-size balloon, Guilty, Welz said.

“The reason we love our crew is that they have become our family,” Welz said. “Not only do they hang out with us on the field and help us, but they are also our friends off the field. “

According to Hanbicki, each morning of a hot air balloon ride in a competition involves extremely early call times and a weather briefing to determine if it is safe to fly and how they want to proceed based on the wind patterns, according to Hanbicki.

“In competition, we always try to go as fast as possible,” Hanbicki said. “The winds are turning. So if we see a wind direction that we like, we know it’s there right now, so we want to be up as soon as possible to catch that wind before it goes away.

Hanbicki teams up with Welz all year round, often competing in competitions across the country, including the 2021 American Balloon Federation National Balloon Championship, which Welz said Guilty had qualified for that year and to which he participated in August.

“In its simplest form, the judges put an ‘X’ in a field and you throw yourself a mile away and try (to) throw a sack at the center of the ‘X’ into that field,” Hanbicki said. “We went to the national championships this year in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.”

In 2018, Guilty placed 10th out of around 550 balloons in the Balloon Fiesta competition, according to Hanbicki.

“When you’re competing our goal is to get the balloon off the ground as fast as possible and with the help of Deiter we were able to get the balloon from the truck to the air in less than ten minutes,” Welz said. .

Hanbicki said he was able to get involved in the hot air ballooning in Albuquerque thanks to a wanted crew on social media. This came as no surprise to Welz, who said social media is an open and inviting space for the hot air balloon community as well as the public.

“Balloon pilots, crew and enthusiasts are connecting on social media all the time,” Welz said. “We are using this social media as an opportunity not only to connect with pilots, crews and balloon enthusiasts, but also to learn about the sport.”

Hanbicki said that being a semi-professional member of the Balloon 222 crew and competing at an elite level instills immense fulfillment at this stage of his life.

Rebecca Hobart is a beat reporter for The Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter @rjhobart


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