Balloon Fiesta bittersweet finale as 85-year-old grandma plans to retire

Elaine Thacher, 85, a retired pilot from Albuquerque, lights the burners of her hot air balloon Saturday morning. For Thacher, the 50th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta will be his last. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Nothing could dampen the spirit of balloon pilot Elaine Thacher – not the thick clouds that cover the sky and obscure the Sandias, not the 50-degree temperatures, not even the light mist that fell nonstop on Balloon Fiesta Park, even making an already soggy launch field wetter.

All was well for Thacher, who at 85 is the oldest pilot to participate in the 50th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Even though Saturday morning’s massive ascent was called off, Thacher was among the pilots who put their balloon gondolas on the ground. Fiesta visitors, still hoping for a window of good weather for pilots to inflate and take off, were clearly thrilled when Thacher’s propane burners ignited with a roar, sending a plume of fire high into the air.

The moment was bittersweet for Thacher, who had announced that she was retiring as a pilot after more than three decades and that it would be her last Balloon Fiesta.

“Yeah, a while ago, and it comes with age,” she said, standing in her wicker gondola. “The balls are quite heavy – 500 or 600 pounds – and lifting them is very physical. And now most of my pursuit team has aged and retired, although some of them say they don’t want to give up. I tell them to bring cookies or something and we’ll have our time afterwards.

Thacher also has a few younger crew members who have been relied on to do the heavy lifting.

She and her late husband, Donald Thacher, first arrived in Albuquerque in 1972 after retiring from the Air Force at the ripe old age of 38. They were en route from their home near Robins Air Force Base in Georgia to Tucson. They stopped in Albuquerque to visit some relatives of her husband.

They loved Albuquerque so much that they stayed and made a living here, raising their two daughters, who were 7 and 9 at the time.

“When we moved here, hot air ballooning was just the start,” Thacher said. “My husband found it very interesting, so we did a few commercial trips and then got involved with the crew. We thought it was great fun, maybe we’ll get our own ball.

And they did.

Donald got his pilot’s license in 1989, Elaine got hers in 1991. The couple have attended every Balloon Fiesta since. Donald died in 2015 and Elaine continued to fly.

The first of three balls they have owned over the years was purchased the same year Donald Thacher bought a sports car. Their children said “dad has gone crazy”, which became the name of this balloon. Elaine Thacher’s current balloon is called “I’m Bananas II”.

Grandson Cody Robinson, 31, stood inside the basket of his balloon, ‘Grand Banana’, at Balloon Fiesta Park on Saturday, next to the basket occupied by his grandmother, who he called his inspiration.

“We used to go to a hot air balloon rally at Angel Fire. I think that was the very first time she let me fire the burners,” he recalled. “I guess I was around 11 and of course she was watching over me, but she let me fly the ball. From there I was hooked.”

A software engineer in Kansas City, Missouri, Robinson has been a pilot for about five years and said he hopes no other family members want to learn to fly, “because they’re my crew.” he joked.

Cody Robinson of Kansas City, Missouri, says his grandmother, Elaine Thacher, 85, inspired him to get his pilot’s license five years ago. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Robinson is not the only one to have been inspired by his grandmother.

Chris Fisher is one of the youngest of Thacher’s crew and has been with her for seven years. “It was an absolute honor to be with her,” he said. “I’ve been on rides with her and she’s an absolutely amazing rider.”

Amy and Don Susan have been on Thacher’s crew for 19 years and agreed that in addition to Thacher’s exceptional piloting skills, “she’s an even better human being,” Amy said. “She shared her love of hot air ballooning with us and all of our family and friends, and took everyone we know for rides.”

Additionally, Amy said, “I teach kindergarten for (Albuquerque Public Schools) and she’s brought her ball to my school a couple of times so my kids can see it. So she really shares her love of sports with everyone around her.

Even though Thacher claims to be getting old, “the ball never gets old for me,” she said. “It’s still fascinating to me and I’ve met a lot of people from across the country.”

The greatest joy she has received from her many years inside the gondola, she said, is that aspect of sharing the experience with her family, crew members and their families. For many of them, “it’s something they might never have done.”

And, for Elaine Thacher, it’s something she can remember as having done well – “and enjoyed every minute”.