After hundreds of hours of flying and 26 years of commercial piloting experience, Provo resident Doug Cannon still gets a rush from flying his hot air balloon. “You test your judgment every time you fly,” said Cannon.
However, it takes more than just one person to easily manage everything that comes with flying and maintaining a hot air balloon. In fact for Doug, ballooning is a family affair.
“Everybody has a job, and so it’s been a wonderful thing for our family: you feel needed, you feel wanted and you’re a part of something,” said Beverly Cannon, Doug’s wife. All of the Cannons’ four children play vital roles in keeping Lucky Star in the clouds.
William, 10, Melissa, 15, and Rebekah, 18, currently help Doug and Beverly manage the balloon, while their eldest daughter, Amy, 19, is currently serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Dominican Republic. Before leaving, she too helped with flights, and also designed the company’s logo, crew shirts and gave the balloon its name: Lucky Star.
“It’s a miracle when you can get three teenage girls and a little boy to work together professionally, look professional and do all that on a Saturday morning at 6 a.m.,” said Rebekah, the second eldest sibling.
Doug and his crew have been taking customers into the skies for the past 15 years in his hot air balloon. People choose to take to the skies in the Lucky Star for a variety of reasons, among them being birthdays, anniversaries, dates, proposals or just family get-togethers. Lucky Star also makes appearances at local schools during the anti-drug Red Ribbon Week, the annual Boy Scout Jamboree and a camp for girls in Heber that gets approximately 350 kids in the balloon’s basket. From experience, Cannon sees that everyone who steps into the basket has an emotional experience.
“When you’re up in the balloon, it’s so incredibly peaceful and beautiful,” explained Beverly Cannon.
It was Doug that first introduced Beverly to the serenity she experiences in the sky. Ballooning was their first date.
Doug met Beverly through mutual friends at a get-together around the campus of Brigham Young University on June 24, 1996.
Doug’s former roommate was hosting a card game gathering and was dating around with two of Beverly’s friends at the time, and was interested in her as well.
“So when I showed up, she completely ignored me for two hours,” recalled Doug. “She avoided me like I had bubonic plague.”
However, after winning several rounds of cards, Doug proved to Beverly that “maybe he had something upstairs.” Beverly was upfront with Doug, and inquired about how close his friendship was with his former roommate. “I’m not kissing anyone until I’m engaged,” she stated after Doug passed her first question.
“We were both older — 33 and 28. We’d seen all the games, and we weren’t interested in them,” explained Doug. After a few upfront formalities, the two hit it off and talked for hours.
At the end of the night, Doug asked her if she’d like to ride in a hot air balloon with him. He asked Beverly for her phone number to coordinate the flight for the coming weekend.
“She wouldn’t give me her phone number,” recalled Doug with a laugh. “I had to show her my pilot’s license before she would believe me.”
The day of the flight came, and the two floated through the air together for about half an hour. “We always joke that he put my head in the clouds and we just never came back,” said Beverly with a laugh.
Two weeks later, they were unofficially engaged. “She kissed me,” said Doug smiling.
Before wooing Beverly, Doug had been flying balloons since 1992, the same year that he earned his commercial pilot’s license. Doug earned the majority of his early-career flight hours flying a balloon at towns throughout the region for the campaign of then Senate-hopeful Joe Cannon.
“A pilot that flies for a living, will typically fly 100 to 150 hours a year,” explained Doug. “In a six-month stretch, I logged almost 300 hours. It was all-out, all-day.”
That is all days, except for Sundays.
“I have chosen not to fly on Sundays,” said Doug. “I’m a man of faith, and I look at it that we’ve been blessed; we have a hot air balloon, a boat, a nice house and those kinds of things.
“We’ve had instances where things could have gone dreadfully wrong, and they didn’t. Take a break — Let Sunday be a day of rest.”
When the Cannons do fly, they are proactive with preparations.
“The process starts several days ahead of the flight,” said Doug. A week before the flight, Doug begins checking the weather patterns and the forecast for the flight day. He calls the riders the night before to explain the game plan, and then he inspects and readies all of the necessary equipment.
“The equipment’s ready to go, so I can go to sleep,” said Doug. “That’s how I sleep at night.”
When he and his family wake, it’s early: 5 a.m.
They gather everything up and pull away in their SUV, towing a small trailer with the balloon in it. They try to arrive at their typical takeoff site, Fox Field in Provo, around half an hour later. Once at the field, the crew springs into action, each person fulfilling different roles.
Once everything is prepared, an eight-horsepower fan with an aircraft propeller fills the balloon with cold air, and the basket burner warms air to expedite the inflation process.
The burner packs a lot of power: 23 million British thermal units, to be exact.
“You could put this burner and a tank of fuel on the gym floor at the Marriott Center and heat the entire volume of the Marriott Center to 300 degrees in less than four minutes,” said Doug.
“You can make some major cookies with that,” chimed in his daughter Rebekah.
With that much heat, the burner is used intermittently. Doug remarked that people on the ground have frequently thought the balloon was in peril when the burner wasn’t going consistently. However, keeping the burner on for an entire ride would likely set the whole balloon ablaze.
“The basic flight profile is that after we launch, we’ll climb to about 1,000 feet above ground,” explained Doug. “The skill in flying a balloon comes in being able to read the wind.”
There’s no steering wheel in a hot air balloon, so the only thing Doug can directly control is how fast he ascends or descends. The rest is up to the wind.
“It’s knowing with a given weather pattern, what the air currents are going to be doing,” said Doug. “To utilize those air currents to get me where I want to go. The winds in the valley are kind of like the water in a river.
“If you go look at the Provo River, the main flow is going one way, but you can find water going every direction in a section of river. The air currents are the same way.”
Once Doug and his passengers take to the air, Beverly and their children take to the SUV to chase the balloon.
The duty of the chase crew, as they’re called, is to track the balloon, help it avoid obstacles and safely land.
“I like when we’re chasing, with our arms out with the windows down,” explained Melissa, the youngest daughter of the Cannons, when asked her favorite part of ballooning.
Finding a suitable landing zone can sometimes be a tricky feat for hot air balloons.
Landing zones can be an open field, a parking lot, a street or even somebody’s yard.
“It’s a function of land-owner relations,” explained Doug. “You need to have permission from the people that own the property to land there.”
Upon final descent, the landing crew helps get the balloon to a safe spot, and use their bodies as weight to keep the balloon safely on the ground. Afterword the crew is often rewarded with their favorite post-flight food: pizza from the Pilot Flying J truck stop in Springville.
More importantly than offering crew services, Doug uses ballooning as a way to bond with and teach his children life skills as they grow toward adulthood.
“The part that has been really fun for me is coaching these guys as they’re trying to take this major step in life,” said Doug.
A fond reassurance that his family’s lifestyle has taken hold for the better came at this year’s Freedom Festival Balloon Fest when Doug was returning to find his 10-year-old son with a crowd of people around the partially-prepared balloon.
“There was a crowd of people on the other side of the equipment, and he’s telling them how it all works,” said Doug. He recalled the feeling of pride seeing his son take the initiative to share what he’s learned about ballooning to make sure everyone had a safe flight.
“It’s part of who we are,” said Doug. “Part of the reason why I took Beverly on a balloon flight as our first date was, that’s who I am; If she doesn’t like this, it’s not going to go anywhere. Let’s figure that out upfront, and she loved it.”
With a smile he concluded, “She still chases me around once or twice a week.”