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?

Continue reading “Interview with the pilot of the Smokey Bear balloon”