Gary Palmer

A seat or basket. A propane tank. A nylon balloon.


Breath-taking views.

It’s an experience Gary Palmer has enjoyed for four decades.

Introduced to the world of ‘ballooning’ back when he was living in his native England, the Yankton man doesn’t turn down a chance to talk about his passion for the craft. He’ll tell you about the challenges, about the adventures and about how he loves teaching others how to fly.

There’s a certain simplicity to it, he says. It’s a serene and quiet — aside from the noise of the tank — experience, but still an adventure filled with challenges, even for someone as experienced as Palmer.

“I’ve never played golf, but I’m guessing it’s like golf,” says Palmer, who works in real estate. “Once someone picks up a golf club for the first time, they hit the ball and it goes anywhere it wants to go.

“Ballooning is like that, too.”

Palmer, who moved to Yankton 25 years ago, has owned two hot air balloons for many years. One was the traditional passenger-carrying variety, with a basket. But he sold that balloon to John Lillevold, a Yankton man who had been taking balloon flying lessons from Palmer.

And so now, Palmer flies what is called a ‘Hopper.’ Unlike a traditional balloon with a basket, a ‘Hopper’ harkens back to the early days of ballooning: A person is strapped into a seat, with a tank behind them, and they wear a harness that is connected to the balloon above them.

Balloons come in all shapes and sizes (as viewers of the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade can attest), but the difficulties remain the same, Palmer says.

“It’s a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time,” he says. “You have this big bag of air and the only control you’ve got is to make it go up or down.”

It’s a sport — or hobby — that counts South Dakota among its roots.

Ed Yost, often referred to as the ‘father of modern hot-air ballooning,’ established Raven Industries in Sioux Falls in 1956. Four years later, he became the first person to fly a hot air balloon untethered to the ground during a flight in Nebraska.

Yost, as the story goes, strapped himself into a chair (which, according to his 2007 obituary in the New York Times ‘essentially looked like a lawn chair’) and propelled himself into the air by propane tanks. Yost’s flight lasted 25 minutes, reached 500 feet and covered three miles, according to published accounts.

Five decades later, the sport of ballooning has grown to where competitions are held across the world and to where pilots are required to be properly trained.

“It’s an accepted minority part of the aviation community around the world,” Palmer says. “We’re governed just the same as any other aircraft.

“We have to be licensed and need to have a certificate for air worthiness for the balloon.”

It’s an activity that even people like Lillevold — a certified flight instructor in Yankton — are still trying to master, with all of the weather variables and constant decisions to be made while hundreds of feet in the air.

“Imagine pulling a railroad train with a lawnmower,” Lillevold says. “You can get it going and get it to stop, but it takes you a while to learn how to do it. You have to pay attention all the time.”

Put another way, there’s more involved in flying a balloon than simply turning a tank off and on, and finding a place to land.

No, even experienced pilots like Lillevold have found the challenge exciting.

“For me, it’s the challenge of learning how to do this new thing,” he says.

Taking To The Air

The year was 1974.

Palmer, then in his mid-20s, was working as a design engineer for a The sport of ballooning, though, has remained popular in this region, according to Palmer.

By Palmer’s estimation, there are approximately a dozen certified pilots in Sioux Falls, and 2-3 in the Yankton area. Iowa has a much larger population of balloon pilots, because “it’s very popular in that state,” Palmer says.

New Form Of Flying

For two decades, Lillevold has flown planes and taught others how to fly planes.

It’s a passion for the Yankton man, he’ll tell you. He doesn’t fly for work (though he started flying to work as an electrical engineer in Sioux Falls), he flies for pleasure — and yes, he would include his sessions as a certified instructor in that category.

That’s why he jumped at the chance to help a fellow pilot two years ago set up for a balloon ride. Lillevold was asked if he’d like to tag along for a ride.

“Why not,” Lillevold remembers saying. He went for one ride and was hooked.

The idea of flying a balloon was so foreign to the experienced pilot.

“It’s not something people sit down and think about it,” Lillevold says.

But for a full year, Lillevold took lessons on how to fly a balloon from Palmer. An instructor himself, Lillevold suddenly became a student.

“I like learning new things,” Lillevold says. “I found it to be a real challenge. Flying a hot air balloon was more difficult than I imagined when I started.”

For starters, here’s what he knew about the craft: You add heat, rise into the air, let the balloon — “envelope” in ballooning lingo — cool down and come back to the ground.

That’s a layman’s explanation, Lillevold says.

“That’s basically true, but if that’s all you know, you’re going to be in trouble,” he says.

Even for someone like Lillevold who has made countless flights of his own, balloon travel has still taught him things about flight. What might those be?

Wind, Lillevold says, has been something he’s learned more about.

“In a matter of just a few feet, you’re in a different wind,” he says. “In those narrow bands of wind, they’re not going 100 miles an hour, but they might be going 20 miles an hour.

“That presents you with an issue.”

Generally, winds are calmer in the morning and in the evening, according to Lillevold. But it’s still an adventure up in the air.

“Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it changes,” he says.


At age 67, Palmer says he is nearing the end of his ballooning career.

“I don’t tend to bounce as well as I used to,” he says, with a smile.

That’s one of the most dangerous aspects to a balloon ride: The landing. Balloons leave the ground and don’t return to the same location; they can’t control where they go.

“We have to go with the wind,” Palmer said. “It’s like a leaf on a river.”

That’s part of the adventure, though, he added. Most balloon landings are actually controlled crashes; unlike planes which can land on a runway.

“It’s the adventure,” Palmer said.

Last year, Palmer was recognized for his safety record; or as he

put it, “for going 40 years of fun without hurting anybody.” He was awarded the Ed Yost Master Pilot Award, by the Balloon Federation of America — the national organization.

His safety record also includes the many lessons he’s given to people like Lillevold. And Lillevold says he can clearly remember moments when Palmer’s sense of calm helped soothe the student’s nerves.

During one of the lessons, Palmer instructed Lillevold to climb up to 2,000 feet and level off there.

“I shot past it and was up at 2,300 feet and struggling to get back,” Lillevold remembers. “He calmly said, ‘If you’re more comfortable at 2,300, we can stay here.’

“I just had to laugh,” Lillevold adds. “As an instructor, I’m usually on the other side of that joke.”

Palmer’s experience flying a balloon, though, made those around him comfortable, according to Lillevold.

“He never really got frustrated or upset with me, even when I did stupid things,” Lillevold says, with a smile.

As an instructor himself, Lillevold realized that students may not realize how dangerous something is, but “I was still hoping Gary would come in and rescue me.”

For Palmer, it’s been an opportunity to pass on his passion; to introduce others to the hobby that he fell in love with four decades ago.

“In all sports of activities, there are people who like to do it, and then if you can’t do it, teach it,” Palmer says.

“Maybe that’s why I like teaching,” he adds with a smile.