Interview with the pilot of the Smokey Bear balloon

Smokey Bear balloon
Smokey Bear balloon at the Shenandoah County Fire. Fred Turck photo.

The Smokey Bear hot air balloon has been flying over crowds of people since its first public voyage in 1993 at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico. In 2012 it survived calls by two Senators to ground the program. But in the 1,806 articles posted on Fire Aviation, we have never written about flying the aircraft. We’re about to fix that oversight.

This is an interview with the pilot, Henry Rosenbaum who is the Henrico County (Virginia) Fire Marshal and a part-time balloon pilot for the Friends Of Smokey Balloon Organization. It was conducted by Fred Turck of the Virginia Department of Forestry.


When did you join the fire service? How did you end up as Henrico’s Fire Marshall?

When I was in high school, I became a lifeguard in which I had to take EMT classes.  At that time, I wanted to be a lifeguard at Virginia Beach, the dream of many a young male lifeguard at the time.  In 1981, I joined the Lakeside Volunteer Rescue Squad to get more training and experience.  By the time, I graduated for from High School my focus turned from the beach to finding a job locally with the fire service. In 1984, I was hired by Henrico County and became a certified paramedic in 1985. I spent several years in the training division and administration and I served as Captain at several stations before being appointed as Fire Marshal in 2011.

Why the Fire Service?

I love making a difference in the lives of others; it is a way to give back to the citizens of the county and the community that have given me so much.

How did you get started in hot air ballooning?

In 1987, I took my first ride in a balloon; this ride was a life-changing event for me.  In 1988, I got my Hot Air Balloon Pilot’s license; purchased my first hot air balloon, which was called Fire 3 and later got my Commercial Pilot’s license.

Fred Turck & Henry Rosenbaum
Fred Turck & Henry Rosenbaum (pilot), L to R. Photo by Debbie Turck.

What was the training like?

Training was both book and practical.  I studied for my written exam given by the FFA; passed that and then I passed my flight test. The FAA examiner checks out my skills and abilities to maneuver the balloon safely. This was followed-up with a 1-2 hour oral review. To receive my Commercial license I needed to take another written test and have another check flight with a Commercial Pilot. Once you receive you Commercial license you are also considered an instructor, testing and mentoring new pilots.  I really enjoy this aspect.

What is your favorite thing about ballooning?

Sharing the sport of ballooning with people who do not typically have the opportunity to be involved with balloons. There is no age barrier; ballooning leaves an ever-lasting impression with folks.  Ask anyone what was the last billboard they saw and a very few might be able to tell you. However, ask them if they ever saw a Hot Air Balloon and if so what did it look like and where were you? Most will recall their encounter and tell you all about it.

I have used ballooning to promote Virginia is For Lovers, Learn Not to Burn, Autism, Childhood Cancer, Move Over and of course Wildfire Prevention with the Smokey Bear Balloon. I am drawn to causes that are personnel to me, ones I have a connection with. The Move Over Campaign honors Hanover Firefighter, Lt. Brad Clark, who was killed in the line of duty while responding to a crash on I-295 during Tropical Storm Michael.

What is the hardest part of piloting a balloon?

Maintaining the balloon at a specific altitude.  It may sound simple, but it is not. Anyone can get in a balloon, turn the burners on and the balloon will go up, turn them off and it goes down, keeping altitude is hard.

What if any instruments do you have to help you pilot a balloon?

Really there are only 3 instruments, a temperature probe that monitors the temperature in the top of the balloon.  You do not want it to go over 250° F.  Then there is an altimeter to tell you how high up you are and VSI gauge, Vertical Speed Indicator. The best instrument is you the pilot, some say you need to be able to fly by the seat of your pants, meaning you must know your balloon and the environmental conditions and react to them and not solely rely any instruments.

What is something you wish more folks knew about ballooning?

Probably some of the history.  Did you know man’s first flight was not Wilbur Wright in 1903 at Kitty Hawk it was someone in a balloon in 1783 in France?

Do you have a favorite balloon story?

I have several, however one was unique and I will remember it forever. In 1997 I was flying the Virginia is For Lovers balloon in Glen Falls, NY.  It was a bad day for flying, overcast and foggy, so the balloon never flew; we were able to display the balloons at the airport.  The next year I was vacationing in Italy and was in Rome visiting the sights and The Vatican.  I wanted to get a tour of The Vatican and was told I needed to get a pass from the Father at the table nearby.  I went over and began talking with him as he asked where we were from and what I did, etc. I gave him a Virginia is For Lovers balloon pin that I had and he said, “I have seen this balloon”. It was last year when he was visiting the states.  He said, “It was in NY on a cloudy day and you were the pilot of the balloon”. A lasting impression and a lifelong connection for sure.

What is the biggest festival/event you have ever flown in?

This definitely the balloon festival in Albuquerque, NW, it is the world’s largest with over 500 regular balloons and another 100 special shaped balloons like the Smokey Bear Balloon. It takes place on an 80-acre field, there are balloons everywhere. In addition there are about 10-12 helium (gas) balloons that are there competing in the American Challenge. The top 2-3 balloons qualify for the Gordon Bennett Cup Race in France. This is a 3-day race.  It is the longest standing race in any sport with the first competition dating back to 1906.

Is this a bucket list item for you?

Yes, for sure, someday maybe.

What was your longest flight? Highest Altitude?

I flew once from the Community College near Charlottesville to Richmond, VA about 60 miles.  This took me a little over 2 hours.

As for the highest altitude, I am one of a few pilots that have taken a balloon over the Continental Divide in Colorado. This was at about 14,000 feet, oxygen is necessary whenever you go over 12,500 feet. Most pilots fly in the 1000-2000 feet altitude maximum.  I did fly one in Virginia over 10,000 feet.

Smokey Bear Balloon
The Smokey Bear balloon made an appearance at the Great Reno Balloon Race in Reno, Nevada September 6, 2019. Photo by Sean Cardinal.

How much does a typical balloon cost?

A new standard shaped balloon can cost $20,000-$30,000; when you get into the specialty shapes like the Smokey Bear Balloon they can cost you $100,000-$200,000.  Some may say that sounds like a crazy amount of money. I knew some people who are major bass anglers and they spend $20,000-$30,000 on a bass boat, rods reels and equipment and do not think twice.  It is all about what you love doing, what you can afford and what you are passionate about.

I read in a story about you that you have been a safety officer on several events; this must come with tremendous responsibility.  What is that job about?

It is both an honor and privilege to be selected as a safety officer.  Yes, it does come with a great deal of responsibility. As a safety officer, you must be a balloon pilot and you must understand the operations of a balloon, what they can and cannot do. You are helping the balloonist look out for other balloonists and the crowd, making sure everyone is kept safe.  In addition, you must be in position to assist if something should go wrong, you have to be ready, willing and able to step in and help.

In another article I read you have competed in races, what are those like?

Most are not races; there are a couple of different events. In one such event you are given a set of coordinates and when you get these you will see a target on the ground.  You have to fly over and drop a sand bag in the center of the target, the closet to the center wins. One is more of a timed event where you are given a GPS position and an altitude. You are timed how long it takes you to get there, if you ever do.


As part of Smokey Bear’s 75th Birthday celebration Virginia brought the Smokey Bear Hot Air Balloon to the Commonwealth. Former US Forest Service employee Steve Buck had the initial idea after he saw the balloon at a recent Boy Scout Jamboree. The George Washington/Jefferson National Forest and the Virginia Department of Forestry Shenandoah Work Area organized, planned, prepared, and facilitated the event which required the help of 20-25 agency personnel along with many volunteers. In addition, William French donated his land, a field near the Shenandoah County Fair Grounds for the balloon launch site. The Comfort Inn, Woodstock, donated rooms and allowed workers to use the hotel’s facilities. Sager Realty paid the per diem costs for three staff members of Friends of Smokey Bear Balloon, and Southern States/Rockingham Petroleum Co-Op donated the necessary propane and a driver who facilitated refueling the balloon between flights.

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