PINE MOUNTAIN, Ga. (WRBL) — After making the transition from Air Force and commercial airplane pilot to hot air balloon pilot, ballooning has become a family affair for Dan Stukas. On a gray-skied Friday morning in September, Stukas and his crew, made up of family and other balloonists considered family, gathered in a field across from Robin Lake Beach at Callaway Resort and Gardens.
“All of our friends are in ballooning,” said Stukas. If they’re not, they will be soon, he added with a laugh.
In total, Stukas has spent 52 years flying. He spent seven years in the Air Force, 25 years as a Delta Airlines pilot and continues to pilot hot air balloons and small planes. He will be Balloon Meister for Callaway’s 25th Labor Day Balloon Festival which officially kicks off this evening at 4 p.m. with live music. A balloon glow is scheduled for 8:30 p.m., followed by fireworks.
“I’ve been flying airplanes a long time before I met Susan,” said Stukas, referring to his wife. After all, the balloon meister explained, it was Susan who got him into ballooning in the first place.
Dan remembered on one the couples’ first dates many years ago, he told his now-wife he could fly anything. She told him she’d really like to go on a hot air balloon ride. Having no idea about ballooning, Dan told Susan he didn’t think hot air balloons had been used since the World Wars. A Macon, Georgia native, Susan disagreed saying she’d always seen balloons go up over the houses in her neighborhood growing up.
Eventually Susan convinced a hesitant Dan to take a balloon flight. After the trip, Dan wasn’t sold. But Susan later convinced them to work with a local balloonist’s chase crew and the rest is history. Today, Dan has spent over 2,000 hours piloting hot air balloons and is well-known in the ballooning community. He and Susan have traveled as far as Taiwan to fly their balloons in festivals.
Ballooning has long since been a family affair in the Stukas family. Dan and Susan’s son and daughter, Mary Beth and DJ, are both involved in the family business. Mary Beth is married to Daryl Tatum, who Dan taught to pilot balloons decades ago.
This morning, the Stukases worked alongside father and daughter Stuart and Mary Enloe. Stuart Enloe, a RE/MAX balloon pilot has been coming to this event at Callaway for the past 25 years.
Despite the weather being inclement for any tethered balloon rides due to gusty conditions, the Stukases, Enloes and Tatum worked like a well-oiled machine to inflate the RE/MAX balloon.
“I got my [balloon] pilots license before my driver’s license,” said Mandy, a former Air Force pilot, as the crew worked on the balloon. She held down a tether as the balloon inflated, a task which was made difficult by the windy morning.]
In the basket of the balloon Stuart, DJ and Tatum also had a difficult job. The crew used high-powered fans and burners to inflate the balloon and get it to rise. Several times, a breeze caused the basked to tilt and veer as the crew filled it.
The unpredictable effect each gust had on the balloon was exactly why Dan called off tethered balloon that morning. Tonight, the balloon glow will go on as planned. Tethered ballon rides on Saturday and Sunday morning will depend upon the weather conditions on those days.
“We’ll have three nights of fireworks, we’ll have live music, dog shows, all the fun things going on at the beach,” said Callaway’s marketing manager Rachael McConnel. “So, it’s still going to be a wonderful salute to the end of our summer season.”