By Kelsey Podo, FCN regional staff
Soaring 400 feet over Sautee Valley in North Georgia on July 10, 8-year-old J.T. Head III became the youngest person to pilot a hot air balloon solo.
“I was nervous. I wasn’t scared,” J.T., who lives in Cleveland, said.
Heights come naturally to J.T., having grown up in a ballooning family. His mother, Desiree Head, has flown in balloons for 30 years, and his father, Tarp Head, has been piloting them for 45 years and owns Head Balloons Inc., a hot air balloon manufacturing company.
The rising fourth grader said he felt inspired to fly after watching his father operate one.
“I saw my daddy doing it, and I know if he could do it alone, then I can do it alone,” J.T. said. “I knew I had enough training, that it was my turn.”
Under Federal Aviation Administration regulations, Tarp said his son would be too young to fly a full-size balloon until he reaches 14 years old. Instead, J.T. piloted an ultralight aircraft made by family friend, David Bristol, which weighs less than 155 pounds, only holds one person and requires no certification.
While watching her son ascend on his own, Desiree said she felt both excited for his accomplishment but also slightly wary.
“(As a mother) Anytime you child gets out of your arms, you’re afraid,” she said. “We’re the kind of parents where we like to gauge if our child is comfortable, and he felt comfortable.”
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Tarp said he didn’t have any apprehension while his son took flight because he knew his son was prepared and equipped with the proper gear, including a harness, walkie-talkie, helmet and extra striker in case the burner goes out.
Desiree and Tarp helped their son inflate the balloon and launch it. As he soared, they followed him to make sure he landed safely. Tarp said they chose an ideal day for the solo flight, one without strong winds.
“For our thinking, there’s a lot more danger out there than allowing him to do this,” Tarp said. “This is a controlled environment as opposed to handing him the keys to a dirt bike.”
Before taking flight solo, J.T. was trained to pilot by his dad, mom and Bristol. Tarp said in addition to flying with another person, J.T. gained experience through operating a 15-foot remote control hot air balloon and practicing on a flight simulator.
When J.T. felt ready, his parents said they allowed him to go solo.
“What I like the most is probably getting to go in the air,” J.T. said. “It’s fun to get into the air instead of having to stay on the ground all the time.”
When the 8-year-old finished his flight, he said his family called Bobby Bradley — of Albuquerque, New Mexico — who broke the world record for youngest solo balloon pilot in 2011 at 9 years old.
Tarp said J.T. previously met up with the young pilot several times at balloon festivals across the country.
“After a flight when J.T. was 4 years old, he told Bobby, ‘One day I’m going to break your record,’” Tarp recounted. “They’ve (Bradley family) known all along that it was in the works.”
During his first solo flight, J.T. said he was able to see the sun set, and he covered around 1.5 miles of land. When piloting a balloon, the 8-year-old said he had to carefully monitor the burner, turning it on and off when necessary.
J.T. said the most difficult aspect of flying involves “making sure you go to the right height and not too high where you run out of oxygen.”
If the young pilot could tell kids one thing about riding in a balloon, J.T. said he would stress that “it’s not as scary as you think it is.”
“When you go really high, it’s fun,” he said. “You see a lot of stuff. “Don’t worry about anything when you go really high. Everything is going to be OK.”