News and Tribune

April 24, 2013

Floating on air: Jerry Copas, local balloonist, reflects on his career and competitions



Just above the treetops in Clarksville and New Albany, Jerry Copas called to the ground with a loud, but friendly, “Hello.” Children and adults waved, happy to see the rare sight of a hot air balloon along with the sunset.

Copas is a lifelong Southern Indiana resident. But for almost as long as he’s been alive, he’s manned a set of burners, a basket and balloon.

After meeting his wife Kathy through ballooning and getting his son Spencer involved, it’s gone from work to a family affair.

“Even though it’s not a full-time job, it’s a very important part of our lives,” Copas said. “We make some income off it and it’s a lot of fun, too. It feels like we have a new student we’re teaching every season and that’s a lot of fun, too.”

Copas has flown balloons for corporate advertising campaigns for 33 years and competed in the Kentucky Derby Festival Great Balloon Race for 27. He said while it’s gone from full-time to part-time for him, he still gets a thrill every time he lifts off.

“I never, ever thought I’d get tired of it,” Copas said. “I guess it’s just the adventure of it. No two flights are ever the same.”

He said the slow pace of the flight and calm, still air in a balloon is a unique flying experience most people don’t expect.

He said the race he’s competed in for 27 years sparked his interest in flying balloons when he was still in elementary school.

“It gets back to the Derby Festival, that was kind of the catalyst,” Copas said. “I was a kid, about 10 or 11 years old. They first brought the hot air balloons to Louisville to do the race the first time that year.”

After seeing balloons in “The Wizard of Oz” and other films, he decided he wanted to ride the wind with them.

At about 16 years old, Copas said he seriously began training for flight. He said looking back, he’s not sure how his parents were comfortable with the idea of flying completely at the whim of the wind.

“As a parent myself now, I ask the same kind of questions of myself sometimes,” Copas said. “My son is 14, and I think back then, my parents must have been pretty perceptive that this was an interesting activity that their kid was interested in and there were probably a lot worse things he could get into.”

After getting his pilot’s license at 18, he and his father, Elwood, purchased a second-hand balloon for him to get some experience with flight. He said it was a hobby at that point, going on to get a degree in college and working full-time, but it eventually became his job.

He and Kathy flew specialized balloons for Brown-Forman, each shaped like bottles of Early Times and Jack Daniel’s bottles, across the country. He said while they traveled the country, they always considered Southern Indiana home.

“It was home and like I said, I grew up here,” Copas said. “I’ve always had anchors here and as for a place to raise a family and a son, I wouldn’t dream of anywhere else. Wherever my son ends up, I hope he takes a little part of living in Indiana with him because it’s not a bad place to grow up, that’s for sure.”

Copas is the president of the Kentucky Balloon Society. While the sport is a lot of fun and draws people from all sorts of backgrounds, he said he’s seeing more gray hair in the sport than he likes.

“I wish it were more accessible to more people because it’s so much fun,” Copas said. “I was lucky to grow up at such a young age to get involved with it. We’re trying to change that and get some kind of outreach activities with some of the colleges.”

He said one student has received a scholarship through his organization to attend a national balloon education camp, but he hopes more young people are able to get into the field in spite of the high operating costs of the hobby.

But he said he still loves the reactions of the people who fly up with him for the first time.

“In 30 years of doing this, I’ve never had anyone have a bad time,” Copas said. “I’ve never had anyone say, ‘Stop, take me back down.’”