With Flying Colors: The Hot Air Ballooning Adventures of Lisa Huck

By Kurt Karandy ’13 M.A.R.

Lisa Huck can fly.

As registrar of Yale Divinity School, Lisa Huck is well known as the keeper of permission slips and all forms of paperwork, but she does not become buried under the papers on her desk. On weekends, Huck may be spotted floating high above Southern New England in a brightly colored hot air balloon: Huck is a licensed hot air balloon pilot.

Lisa in a balloonIn a recent lunchtime presentation to the YDS community, Huck explained that her interest in hot air ballooning began around her birthday in 1998. “Fifteen years ago I was getting ready for a big birthday—I won’t tell you which one—and I wanted to do something, something big to celebrate,” she said. As the date approached, she asked Santo Galatioto, a friend and colleague at Yale School of Medicine, who flew a hot air balloon if he would take her for a birthday flight. He agreed.

On July, 25 1998, a little after her milestone birthday, Huck went on her first flight. Admitting she’s “not too crazy about heights,” Huck spent much of that ride hugging the rail of the balloon basket. Nevertheless, what began as a one-time dramatic birthday celebration soon turned into a regular habit for Huck. “I became hooked,” she said. “It was beautiful.” 

She began to “crew” for hot air balloon flights, a term referring to the chase crew team on the ground that follows the balloon in a car and assists the flight crew with its landing. Huck also began to take flying lessons from Galatioto. Any commercial balloon pilot is licensed to instruct others, Huck explained. 

Hot air balloon flights may be associated in popular culture with idyllic scenery and carefree getaways, but Huck emphasized that flying balloons required both skill and practice. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration treats balloons as aircraft, subject to many of the same regulations. When Huck took her pilot exam in 2005, it included written, oral, and practical components.

She remembers her practical exam as particularly stressful. Galatioto, who had been her flying instructor, also evaluated her exam because he was the designated examiner for the Southern New England region. Huck said, “It’s kind of like when your parent is your school teacher. They know all your strengths and your weaknesses. So I was extra nervous.”

Part of the practical exam, Huck explained, involved performing a task known as contour flying. This is when the pilot directs the balloon to rise and descend in a pattern consistent with the shape of the landscape. At this point of the exam, Galatioto wanted Huck to be much lower to the ground but the balloon was not cooling fast enough. Huck successfully arrived at Santo’s height request, but she confesses it was not the most graceful flight. 

Despite the quite-literal bump in the ride, Huck completed the flight and was granted her pilot’s license. One could even say she passed the exam with flying colors.

Huck describes ballooning as an enjoyable and challenging activity, but not as an extreme sport. “If I leave you with anything I leave you with the notion that it's fun and beautiful and peaceful, but it's not extreme and it's not dangerous,” she said. 

While she enjoys the sights and challenges of flying, one of Huck’s favorite parts of hot air ballooning is being a part of the chase crew. “The chase crew is an interesting challenge because you don't know where the balloon will land,” she said. “It's fun to watch the fields and try to get to where the balloon's going to be by using the roads and try to anticipate where the balloon's going to land. Sometimes it's in a neighborhood that's not really obvious from where you are.”

According to Huck, the unpredictability of where the hot air balloon will land is part of the appeal of flying. Oftentimes, pilots will try to land in the back yards of residential neighborhoods because they provide enough open and accessible space for the balloon. 

When a crew team member, Huck tries not to communicate with the pilot or anyone in the basket of the balloon, as a personal challenge for herself. Instead, she prefers to visually track the balloon independently and determine a way the chase car can follow the balloon by using the roads. Two-way radios are the devices available for communication between the pilot and the chase crew, but Huck only uses them in extreme cases. “I refuse to get on the radio,” she said. “If I’m on the radio, I’ve lost the balloon.”

Huck shared of one time while she was on the chase team the balloon landed in a backyard of a neighborhood. But because of the tall trees and long driveways, it was unclear to her in which house’s yard the balloon had landed. “I knew I was close but I couldn’t figure out which driveway.” To solve the riddle, the pilot contacted Huck and told her to start beeping the horn of the car she was driving. “He knew when I was getting closer and when I went too far. It was brilliant,” said Huck. With this innovative approach, Huck and the balloon were soon reunited. 

Huck has no shortage of memorable stories about flying, either. On a flight the morning before Hurricane Irene stuck Connecticut in August 2011, she saw the outermost bands of the storm in the sky. “It was the most interesting sky I’ve ever seen,” she said.

Because balloon flights need to occur early in the morning—within the first hour after sunrise—for temperature reasons, Huck has witnessed an array of surprisingly candid sights from above.

“I've seen way too many people in way too little clothing. You know, sometimes we fly over skylights, or people who are hanging out of windows, or see people in their very private back porch, you know, in their underwear having their morning coffee.”

So, next time you attempt to hide from Lisa Huck because of an overdue form to change a grade or drop a class, be careful—one never knows when the registrar might be looking.

Date Posted: Friday, March 1, 2013 - 10:02am