Dan Stukas has plenty of stories from his 30-plus years as a hot air balloon pilot. And boy, is he a storyteller.
But how did he get into balloon flying?
"I said, 'Lonnie, there's no stinkin' steering wheel. Why would I like this?” said Stukas.
His love for ballooning started, really, as a way to get the girl at his first lunch with his now-wife.
"She said, 'Well, you can probably fly anything, can't you?' and I said, 'Oh, yes, ma'am, I can fly anything.' And she looked at me, and she said, 'Well, I wanna go for a hot air balloon ride,’” said Stukas.
A long-time pilot of planes, he was initially resistant to the idea, but, as his ear-to-ear grin will make it clear, he's glad he came around.
"My son is a balloon pilot. My granddaughter, 16 years old, that's all she talks about is getting her license,” said Stukas.
At the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, he's in good company.
"I have been to every balloon fiesta since I was born," said Jonathan Wright, a balloon pilot. "People from all over the world coming together as a community.”
This year, more than 500 registered pilots representing 12 countries attended.
And Scripps News’ James Packard couldn’t resist getting on a balloon himself.
“Maybe, what, 2,000 feet above the earth? I'm here with Eileen Jones; she's our pilot today. And you've been doing this for 32 years?” asked Packard.
"32 years this week,” Jones responded.
"You just said this is maybe one of the more spectacular mornings you've seen?" Packard asked.
"Absolutely, in my entire 32 years, absolutely," said Jones.
But this year, there is something different.
A solar eclipse will be passing right over the famous affair.
"That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you don't let something like that pass you by,” said Wright.
As the sky darkened Saturday morning, the balloons kept the lights on. A convergence of magic, the man-made, and the natural.
"I think that's what really draws so many people to this sport—it's the challenge of man and nature,” said Wright.
"If you want to share your hobby, share your love, this is the place to do it,” said Stukas.
For Dan, the eclipse adds a thrilling chapter to what will always be, for him, a love story.
"We decided we're gonna get married. And what better way than with balloons?" said Stukas. "Susan walks in—down the grass—with the most beautiful wedding dress. I get in, we help Susan in, and we fly away. That's how we got into ballooning."
The solar eclipse passed through eight U.S. states before moving across the Gulf of Mexico and over Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Brazil, making the famous "ring of fire" visible to millions of people on Saturday.
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