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Time nears for boy balloonist to test pilot skills

TOME, N.M. (AP) — The boy balloonist can hardly wait to lift off from a remote patch of New Mexico desert and start his first solo flight — a moment set for early Saturday that would make him the youngest trained pilot to fly an ultra-light hot air balloon.

The big day for 9-year-old Bobby Bradley comes after about five years of training and learning from some of the most experienced and decorated pilots in the sport of ballooning — including his parents, well-known balloonists Troy and Tami Bradley, of Albuquerque.

“If I could fly right now, I would,” said Bobby, who planned to spend the last few days leading up to his solo practicing in a tethered balloon.

His father expects Bobby will have enough fuel for about a 90-minute flight, but he’ll likely fly about 20 to 40 minutes, and his balloon will go wherever the wind takes it.

The feat is sure to remind some of the televised images showing a runaway balloon sailing over Colorado in 2009 amid fears a boy was inside. That boy was actually hiding in the family’s garage and his parents were later accused of staging a hoax.

This boy, Bobby, has logged nearly 30 hours of flight time with his father in a standard hot air balloon. It’s about three times bigger than the ultra-light balloon built by family and friends specifically for the 9-year-old’s solo flight.

He will be able to fly on his own at such a young age because the balloon is classified as an ultra-light aircraft.

The endeavor could place Bobby among the growing ranks of record-setting child adventurers. The most notable among them include 13-year-old Jordan Romero, of California, the youngest person to climb Mount Everest; and Australian Jessica Watson, who at 16 became the youngest person last year to sail around the world solo, nonstop and unassisted.

Such accomplishments have drawn both acclaim and debate, with critics saying the adventures pose serious risks.

But Bobby and his parents are confident he is prepared, and his mother said she worried most about smaller complications, like her son “needing to go to the bathroom and things like that.”

“I’m pretty confident in his skills,” Tami Bradly said. “I don’t worry about his flying ability. I worry about other things. I’m a mom.”

She will be a little nervous Saturday. But to put things in perspective, she explained that as a mother, she’ll always be anxious any time Bobby and his 11-year-old sister, Savannah, have big events, whether they mark a first music recital or the first time behind the wheel of a car.

Raymond Bair, a designated balloon examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration in New Mexico, said he is not “particularly” concerned about Bobby’s solo flight, and there are factors that give him confidence, including his extensive flight training.

“I say not particularly because there is always danger in aviation in general,” Bair said. “A couple of things give me quite a bit of confidence.”

Troy and Tami Bradley have been licensed pilots since they were teenagers. He made his first solo flight when he was 14 and earned his license at 16. She earned her license at 17.

The two won the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, one of the country’s biggest events in balloon racing, in 1998. Troy Bradly also helped pilot the first balloon to fly from North America to Africa and has set dozens of world records in ballooning.

They have never pressured Bobby to follow in their footsteps. He simply grew up to love his parents’ sport.

“It’s really relaxing and fun,” Bobby said. “I’ve grown up around it, it’s in my blood, and both of my parents are balloon pilots. I’m just used to it.”

Troy Bradley tested the balloon last week as an anxious Bobby watched from the family’s larger balloon, which he was flying with his mother and fellow pilot Randy Rogers.

At less than 155 pounds, the light-weight red gondola and the 32,000-cubic-foot envelope decorated with tie-dye fractals stood out against the sky and the Manzano Mountains during its maiden flight.

Bobby pleaded with his dad over the radio to land so he could try.

“He was just so excited,” Tami Bradley said. “He said, ‘Dad, I just want to fly it now. We could just do it now.”’

The balloon was easy to maneuver and hardly used any fuel to get aloft. Bobby’s parents say the challenge will be for him to get used to the burner.

Bobby already knows what he’s up against.

“Just one little burn makes it go all the way up,” he said.

Aside from the numerous safety seminars and ballooning conventions that Bobby has attended with his parents over the last few years, preparation for his solo flight kicked into high gear earlier this year with the building of the balloon. It was completed just last month.

Bobby has also been studying a photograph of the top of the balloon’s fuel tank that his father labeled with the names of all of the parts.

His father also built a brace on the family’s swing set so he could hang the burner and Bobby could practice relighting it over and over again in case the pilot light goes out while he’s up in the air alone.

His mother doesn’t care if Bobby is embarrassed by her doting, as was the case before last week’s practice flight. She made sure his harness was in just the right place and that his helmet was cinched tight.

“You have to wear it,” she told him as he grimaced.

After a few minutes of awkwardness, Bobby stepped onto his stool, reached for the burner and quickly forgot about the helmet and harness as he concentrated on getting the balloon off the ground. In a matter of seconds, he and his passengers were in the air.

For Troy and Tami Bradley, figuring out why flying has become such a passion for their son isn’t difficult. They know what it’s like to be up there, watching life pass by quietly under their feet.

“It’s that bird’s eye view and just a different sensation of looking at the world,” Troy Bradley said. “It all just seems to make a little more sense. It’s laid out nicely and it’s a wonderful feeling to be up in the air.”

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