A Man & His Flying Machine

Spoiler alert!

The heartwarming balloon scene with Dorothy, Toto and the Wizard at the end of the iconic movie “The Wizard of Oz” is a fake. Okay, the whole movie was based on a fevered dream, the magical Land of Oz, two witches and a cast of characters including a dancing scarecrow and winged monkeys, but John Petrehn remembers watching the hot air balloon scene as a tyke and thinking, “That’s not real. That’s not how it’s done.”

The 6-year-old Petrehn knew what he was talking about. Surrounded by a family of balloonatics, the second youngest of 11 kids acquired a razor-sharp eye for detail when it came to the high-flying sport. 

“My dad got involved in ballooning in the early 1970s when he went up with a friend,” recalls Petrehn, adding that his father purchased the balloon from his pal before the craft hit the ground. 

Initially Petrehn’s dad utilized the balloon to advertise his small industrial floodlight business. “The balloon was a big light bulb,” smiles Petrehn.

Then the obsession of flying for pleasure snagged the Petrehn clan full-tilt and it hasn’t loosened its grip.

“Today six of my siblings have their pilot’s license and my mother still joins chase crews occasionally. We’ve been called The Flying Wallendas of ballooning,” he jokes, referring to the legendary family of high-wire acrobats.

Petrehn says his mom, Jackie, is his number-one fan. His brothers Paul and Maury are also accomplished competitive pilots and many of Petrehn’s other family members and friends are frequently part of his chase crews.

And just like one of the daring Flying Wallendas, Petrehn has climbed to the top echelon of the ballooning world, earning national championships multiple times and recently being named the World Champion for the second time. The Leawood resident has piloted his way to more than 50 balloon competitions in his 24 years of taking to the skies and has earned respect the world over from his peers in what Petrehn calls the sometimes-quirky sport of ballooning.

“I have made wonderful lifelong friends through my ballooning experiences. Ballooning is a cross between the Olympics and the characters from ‘Best in Show,'” Petrehn says, referring to the popular 2000 “mockumentary” film that follows five eclectic entrants in a prestigious dog show.

“It really is a bizarre little sport with people from all walks of life,” says Petrehn. “It’s beautiful to watch and balloons put a smile on anyone’s face.”

According to Petrehn, people mistakenly associate ballooning with a daredevil sport–a close cousin to skydiving or bungee jumping.

“Ballooning couldn’t be more different,” says Petrehn. “It’s serene, calming and peaceful.”

Petrehn grew up watching his father pursue ballooning with gusto–the senior John Petrehn started the process of trying to be the first person to circle the globe in a balloon in the 1980s. Although he wasn’t successful, Petrehn says his dad still watched with a keen eye as other adventurers tried to do solo flights around the world in a balloon. The elder balloonist passed in 1990 without achieving his dream; instead he left a family whose passion followed in the patriarch’s footsteps.

Petrehn is immersed in a sport that can trace its earliest beginnings to France on November 21, 1783 when Pilâtre, together with an army officer, the marquis d’Arlandes, made history with the first free flight by humans. Their custom-built “lighter-than-air” machine flew from the western outskirts of Paris for nine kilometers at about 3,000 feet.

Today Petrehn’s modern-day machine–which weighs some 600 pounds with its basket, cylinders and burners, stands 85 feet tall with the balloon itself spanning 55 feet wide–is more in the shape of an aerodynamic football than the traditional round “envelope.” 

On a typical balloon flight over Johnson County, Petrehn’s wind conditions are below 10 miles per hour, with the balloon hovering just a few hundred feet off the ground. Petrehn has experienced speeds upwards of 60 mph at altitudes of several thousand feet in some competitions.

“When you compete, it’s not for speed but rather for accuracy,” explains Petrehn who says his competitive nature comes from being the member of a large brood. “I had to fight my way to the front of the line for a piece of chicken,” he says with a laugh. “I’m very competitive.”

Strategy and formulating a plan is what flies pilots to victory in competitions and Petrehn says his tendency is to be a bit more conservative and calculated than many of his colleagues. “It’s like three-dimensional sailing,” he says. “I make the balloon go up and down depending on different wind directions at varying altitudes and maneuver it to a predetermined spot.”

Cutting-edge technology is a companion in the basket when Petrehn, a member of the Balloon Federation of American, flies. Once outlawed, GPS systems are now a necessity in competitive ballooning. “I have three trusty Garmin GPS units that I use,” he says. “They help you pinpoint things and indicate your speed.”

But, Petrehn admits, his years of experience as a professional hot air balloon pilot are his best and most reliable tool.

When Petrehn won his second World Hot Air Balloon Championship in Debrecen, Hungary last fall–he received a gleaming traveling trophy–he had to outwit and outperform 120 other balloonists from around the globe. There were six U.S. balloonists in the competition and Americans filled the three top spots going into the spectacle’s last flight. 

“We all worked together as a team until the final flight,” says Petrehn, whose balloon was sponsored by Curves International. “Then it was every man for himself.”

Four American pilots finished in the top 20 in Hungary, including Petrehn’s brother, Paul, who finished in the 19th berth.

The U.S. is joined by the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan as the traditional powerhouses in balloon competition. “It’s a friendly rivalry,” grins Petrehn.

Petrehn, who sells and invests in real estate, owns a company called MagniFlight LLC that helps companies with strategic marketing through the use of hot air balloons–think of a giant, floating billboard in the sky–on a local, regional and national scale. “I also offer pilot training and scenic rides,” he says. “And I donate rides for charitable auctions, especially when kids are involved.”

Petrehn’s impressive dossier includes flying clients’ balloons over major sporting events such as the Super Bowl in Miami and Phoenix; the Daytona 500; Major League Baseball All-Star Game; the Kansas City Royals; and the Kansas City Chiefs. He’s flown for corporate giants including Kraft Foods, AT&T and Pepsi-Cola.

What’s Petrehn’s ultimate ballooning goal?

“I’m a born competitor so I’ll fly for a long time,” he pauses. “I want to fly over the Grand Canyon and I want to be the first person ever to win a third World Championship scheduled to be held in Battle Creek, Mich., in 2012.

The defending World Champion no doubt has a silent co-pilot who is cheering him on–the very man that started his son’s fascination and ultimate mastering of the world’s oldest form of flying decades ago.

For Petrehn, that last scene in “The Wizard of Oz” does hold some inarguable truth.

“There’s nothing like flying,” he says.  “But there’s no place like home.”

For more information, visit www.magniflight.com.

words: Kimberly Winter Stern

photos: Paul Versluis