Staying aloft, Mike Bauwens has a unique perspective
Mike Bauwens is afraid of heights. It’s the ultimate irony for a man who’s been flying hot air balloons for over 30 years and gained an international reputation as one of the best balloon pilots and instructors in the world. Aspiring students from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Park City to learn to fly from the veteran aeronaut. The longtime Park City resident is a study in understatement as he reflects on his adventurous and pioneering life so far.
Bauwens was born and raised in Mobile, Ala. He refers to his birthplace as LA, for "lower Alabama." As a child he loved to play on the beach. He had no interest in flying as a child. "I had my feet firmly planted in the sand," he says.
He had an aptitude for math and science, but overall was an average student. He played football in high school but hated practice. "It was hot! You had to show up every day and hit people and get hit," he cringes. "I guess my quest for glory overcame the pain. I did make a few touchdowns," he adds modestly.
When Bauwens was five years old his uncle, a professional musician, taught him to play the guitar. Bauwens developed into a talented guitarist. In high school, he started a band with some friends and traveled the state, playing in schools and churches.
After high school, Bauwens was off to Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., where he took a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. His college years were fun, says Bauwens. "On weekends and during breaks we’d take off and travel. I learned to ski in Colorado. I made several trips to Steamboat Springs, Keystone and Breckenridge during college. I liked the laid-back attitude of Westerners and the weather especially the weather."
After graduation, he worked in the shipyards in Jacksonville. "I was having a lot of fun working the graveyard shift with my friends," says Bauwens. "Pretty soon they figured out I had a degree in engineering and told me to report for a job in the office." Bauwens didn’t want any part of it. He promptly quit and headed west.
He stayed with friends in Denver for a while, but soon landed a federal government job as a safety engineer with the Occupational Standards and Health Administration (OSHA), in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. "One of my first safety inspections was at the Raven Industries Plant, where they made hot air balloons."
"It was interesting, but I had no desire to fly in one. When I told my roommate, Larry, about it, he got excited. We took a demo ride and I was scared to death. He bought got a balloon about two weeks later. We didn’t know how to fly it and had no instruction, but we managed a flight over Sioux Falls without killing ourselves. I made a lot of promises up there and had to go to church for a month after we landed safely. We got some instruction, flew a few more times and I started to have fun," he recalls.
"The winters in Sioux Falls were — memorable," shivers Bauwens. "I wanted to get out of there and transferred to New Orleans. My roommate and the balloon ended up in Houston and I made a few trips over there to fly, but Larry eventually burned it up and that was that."
Continuing his wandering ways, Bauwens transferred to Baton Rouge and then to Anchorage, Alaska, still with OSHA. "When I had saved up some money I ordered a balloon and learned to fly on my own. The FAA up there insisted that I get a license. One day I was flying north of Anchorage and some guy drove up and was jumping up and down all excited. He didn’t have a balloon at the time but he had a commercial certificate, which meant he could certify that I could fly. The FAA examiner refused to fly with me so my oral exam consisted of one question ‘how was it up there.’"
Bauwens was one of the pioneering balloonists in Alaska, which he describes as "a beautiful place to fly." He became a dealer and sold 25 balloons while he was there. The wanderlust struck again in 1980. He quit OSHA, moved to Steamboat Springs and launched a balloon ride business. Successful from the start, he expanded to Keystone and Breckenridge, his old stomping grounds, in 1981.
"I heard about Park City’s Autumn Aloft from a friend in 1983 and came over to check it out. It was a great place to fly back then so I moved here. I helped out with the balloon festivals and ran my ride business." He also expanded into snowmobiling rides in the mid-1980s.
He met Betty Brown in 1986. She was winding down a successful L.A. (the real LA) film and television career, moving to Park City to become a real estate broker. The two hit it off immediately. "I used to fly over her condo at the Racquet Club and hang out. She’d come out, rubbing her eyes, to chat and offer us coffee. My passengers loved it," he said.
The two were married in 1988 in one of the most visually stunning wedding ceremony the town has ever seen. "We had 16 balloons on the Park Meadows Golf Course," Bauwens recalls. "We exchanged vows inside a big, red inflating balloon. Then we all flew off together to another condo on the golf course for the reception. It was spectacular!"
The two now live relatively quietly in Silver Creek, where Bauwens maintains a home and two large hangers for his flying business. His focus for the last 15 years has been on teaching ballooning and developing an aerial advertising and photography business using remote-controlled helium blimps.
Students come from all over the world to train with Bauwens. He enjoys the international mix. "It never ceases to amaze me how closely people in different parts of the world think. Students form Israel, Romania, Japan, France, Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, they’re very similar when it comes to learning to fly," says the veteran balloonist. It’s interesting to discuss issues that affect them and what’s going on in their countries. For instance, you might think the Israelis are all commandos, but really they’re just fun-loving people. They’re careful in what they do but they don’t live in fear every day."
Bauwens says he likes living in Park City because of the great weather and flying conditions and the "ambiance" of the area. "People here just have a great attitude about life," he says. It’s not all roses, though. His pet peeve about Park City has to do with changing demographics. "I find that the ‘great attitude’ is eroding as time goes on and the city experiences growth. It’s very unfortunate, but I guess it’s the price of progress."
"I avoid flying in Park City so my students can practice maneuvers without disturbing people. Unfortunately for balloonists, a few vocal complainers have ruined it for most of the locals who enjoy seeing balloons in the morning."
Still, Bauwens is happy here. At age 55, he says he’s mellowed out over the last few years. "I really enjoy teaching and flying my blimps." He says. "The weather and the flying are still good. We travel a lot, and I’m getting back into playing guitar. We’ve got a little garage band going, and plan to have a big party in the spring."
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