Following a childhood obsession: Texas balloonist competing for national championship

Pilot Joe Zvada flies along with other competitors at the 2018 World Championship.

SCOTTSBLUFF — “Other kids have a dinosaur phase, I had a balloon phase as a child, and I never grew out of it.”

For Joe Zvada of McAllen, Texas, ballooning is a childhood obsession that he never has grown out of — and he’s just fine with that.

“You still get that magical moment when you just start to lift off the ground,” Zvada said. “In that moment, it doesn’t feel like you’re even going up. It’s more like the ground is just falling away from you.”

Of course, don’t confuse the romantic reflection on liftoff with someone who is just going for a ride.

“Really, on a high level, I’m motivated by the competition,” Zvada said. “We take these things very seriously, and it can get very intense at times. ... It’s really super beautiful when you’re successful and win a competition.”

After trying different balloons over the years, Zvada has settled in on a balloon manufactured by Lindstrand Balloons USA in Galena, Ill. He said that some rides are taller and skinnier, but Zvada’s current football-shaped balloon allows for greater mobility to catch the wind properly, and “it suits my flying style.”

Growing up in Ohio, Zvada’s balloon obsession led him to get his license when he turned 16, about 18 years ago. He said he’s been going to five or six events per year for the past several years, and always attends the U.S. Nationals and goes to the World Championships when those events are held every other year — next year in Slovenia.

Balloonists will have many memorable moments, and Zvada recalled a couple of splash-and-dash occasions. A splash-and-dash is when the pilot touches down gently on a body of water, then goes right back up.

“If you hit too hard, it becomes a splash-and-sink real quick,” Zvada said.

On one memorable occasion, he touched down near some water skiers on a lake and was able to catch their reaction to the balloon.

In the top five of memorable events for Zvada was a splash-and-dash in the Persian Gulf as part of a competition in Dubai. He recalled, in that particular event, part of the competition involved flying near the prince’s palace and pilots had to make sure they avoided the air space over an enclosure for the prince’s lions or tigers — big cats one way or another.

Zvada said those who have come out to the Old West Balloon Fest in the past will be seeing a different type of flying than they’re used to. He said the competitors in this year’s event will be flying higher than what western Nebraskans might be used to — up to around 10,000 feet — and their morning flights will be 2-3 hours rather than a short excursion. He said it’s important for spectators to know what the competitors are doing.

“We really want to get the word out that we will fly until we find a nice place to land,” Zvada said. “We’ll look for a nice open field or something and then get permission to come down there. Sometimes, when we land, it may look like it’s a really hard landing, but it’s really not. It’s not necessarily an emergency. It’s actually pretty normal for us.”

The last seven or eight U.S. Nationals have been in Texas or the southeast, so Zvada is looking forward to his first ever trip to western Nebraska from the topography to the weather.

“With the nationals in the southeast where they have been, we’re always dealing with very dense forest, swamp kind of areas,” he said. “It’s 85 degrees and humid when you first get up in the morning, so I’m really looking forward to all things western Nebraska.”