“When pigs fly” is more than just an expression for Rio Rancho hot air balloon pilot Doug Gantt. It’s the inspiration behind his pig-shaped balloon, Ham-Let.

“When I was a kid growing up, my dad’s favorite phrase was, ‘When pigs fly,’” Gantt said. “That’s where the idea came from.”

While the inspiration came from his dad, the design actually came from his son. “He was 15 at the time, and we were traveling with the Sony balloon, and he was traveling with me in the summer, and he had somehow brought crayons and a coloring book and some to draw with just to kill the time while we were driving,” Gantt said.

Doug Gantt

“We were somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, and he wanted to go to sleep, and I went, ‘No, no, no, you’re going to stay awake and help keep me awake while we draw it.’ And I said, ‘Why don’t we draw a balloon that we should build and fly? Let’s do a special-shape balloon.’

“He said, ‘What should we do?’ I said, ‘What’s Grandpa’s favorite phrase?’ He looked at me and snapped his fingers and went, ‘When pigs fly.’ … We’ve had lots of fun with it.”

However, Gantt’s love of ballooning came before the pig balloon that’s a regular at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Gantt was living in central Florida, in the Orlando area, when he and his new wife moved to DeLand, Florida. “Six months after we got there, they had the very first balloon rally in DeLand, so I went out with a camera and took lots of pictures and met pilots and was just goo-goo-eyed.”

He said for his anniversary six months later, he booked a balloon ride for him and his wife. He said he was barely more than two minutes into the experience that he said, “I gotta have one of these.” So he went out and bought a balloon.

While his marriage didn’t last, his love of ballooning did. He’s been ballooning for 30 years now, all accident-free and safe, he said.

His first Balloon Fiesta was in 2001, when he had a commercial contract with Sony Electronics. “It was a hard, three-day ride from Florida. But you know, with that commercial contract, I came out and we flew and I decided then and there that I would never, ever miss another one, and I haven’t,” Gantt said.

And, he soon started bringing Ham-Let with him.

After many years of making that drive from Florida to Albuquerque, he was looking for events to attend with the pig and cut traveling expenses. “I finally just said, ‘Hey, I’m done with this. I’m moving. So about four years ago, I goa a real estate agent, knew I wanted to live on the West Side, and the rest is history,” Gantt said.

When asked what makes the Albuquerque ballooning event so special, he had a hard time naming just one thing.

“It has a reputation in the ballooning world as the world’s largest balloon festival, and there’s a certain mystique associated with that,” he said. “And then the fact that it is out West, I mean, it was very foreign from obviously Florida in the Southeast like we came from.

“It’s the event; it’s the number of the balloons, it’s Albuquerque, New Mexico; it’s the Southwest. It just has a reputation throughout the world as a first-class event, and that was just something I certainly wanted to be into,” Gantt added.

And, with a commercial balloon, he wanted to come where the crowds were.

While he said Fiesta is a really long week, especially with a special shape with five glows. However, being a part of the Fiesta for more than 20 years, what he loves most about it is the people he meets. “The thing that I like most is one, is the flying, but two, it’s the people; it’s the pilots; it’s the friends that I’ve made; it’s the staff and the organization of the Balloon Fiesta that makes them want to come into town,” he said. “I mean, they just do a great job.

“I’ve made friendships with volunteers and people associated with the Balloon Fiesta organization,” he continued. “We just really enjoyed meeting with these people. … I get pilots from Canada and England and Taiwan that come over every year, and we get a chance to sit down and talk with each other and catch up, so the friendships.

“It’s just something that people need to get out and go,” Gantt said of the fiesta. “Make that commitment to get up and get out early. Get in the field and don’t be trying to drive in at 6 o’clock in the morning. There’s plenty of food and plenty of activities and things to do on the field at that hour of the morning. You want to be there … Just get in the field and get settled. The last thing you want to do is be stuck in your car on Alameda watching the balloons fly over your head.”

He also credits the Balloon Fiesta organizers for making it such a safe and successful event where hundreds of pilots are getting ready to take flight at the same time. “They do a great job with launching and safe launching deployments. It’s very safe, very coordinated.”

The layout of the field, helps with that, he said, with several different launch zones — and zebras clearing the pilots for launch. One by one, each zone is cleared for takeoff, Gantt said, depending on which way the wind is blowing.

He said with the balloons being FAA-registered aircraft, pilots have to be certified, know their weight limits (which vary depending on atmosphere). With the altitude in the metro, they carry less weight because the air is lighter. “Everything we do is safety first, with the balloon, with the crew and with any spectators out there on the field with us. Safety is our first and foremost concern, and it will always be like that.”

Special shapes also take a little bit of extra care. Gantt said they can be more difficult to fly because they tend to be heavier and more plump, requiring more attention. “With the pig, in order to do the wings and the eyes and the ears and everything, those fill up with hot air inside and there’s 50 vents in the balloon that we have to open and close, make sure they’re closed before we can fill up all the hot air.”

Gantt also give a lot of credit to his crew, called Pig-Lets. “We actually fly the pig all nine days. We don’t just pull it out for those two days (special shapes rodeos),” he said. “We get into it with T-shirts and all that other good stuff, and everybody recognizes and knows you.

“Hot air ballooning, it’s not a singular sport. I requires a team and a crew working together to fly,” he added. “So if someone has an interest in ballooning or aviation and wants to come join us and fly, it’s a great way to meet new people, get involved in new activities and find a new passion in life.”

Sandoval County pilots registered for Balloon Fiesta

  • Kandy Land, pilot Rachel Zimmer, Rio Rancho, launch site J7
  • Huckleberry, pilot Jesse Zimmer, Rio Rancho, launch site J7
  • Jaw’s, pilot Johnny Wilson, Rio Rancho, launch site H3
  • DUB-L Up, pilot Jake Whisenhunt, Rio Rancho, launch site Q6
  • Bottom’s Up, pilot Chuck Wehner, Rio Rancho, launch site K10
  • Cool Beans!! Pilot Barney Watson, Placitas, launch site B8
  • Airloom, pilot Suzanne Warren, Rio Rancho, launch site T10
  • Desert Hummingbird, pilot Janet Soffera, Rio Rancho, launch site H10
  • Mae’s Magic, pilot Shane Shipman, Rio Rancho, launch site S2
  • Double Trouble, pilot Bobby Richardson, Rio Rancho, launch site S2
  • Rainbow Ryders, pilot Brad Rice, Rio Rancho, launch site N7
  • Enchanted Endeavor, pilot Thomas Randall, Placitas, launch site Q3
  • Primary Colors, pilot Kelly Price, Rio Rancho, launch site K11
  • Pata Gold, pilot John Pata, Rio Rancho, launch site R6
  • Bounce, pilot Judy Nakamura, Placitas, launch site H9
  • Fruity Ozaga, pilot Randy Myklebust, Rio Rancho, launch site C9
  • Vacation, pilot Robert Moncrief, Rio Rancho, launch site H10
  • Morning Wood, pilot Daniel Liberti, Rio Rancho, launch site U8
  • Never Forget, pilot Mark Komadina, Rio Rancho, launch site E8
  • Ham-Let, pilot Doug Gantt, Rio Rancho, launch site E4
  • With Oden’s Breath, pilot Mark Hofheins, Rio Rancho, launch site S7
  • Kkisses of Fire, pilot Eric Hodges, Rio Rancho, launch site Q9
  • Jester Unwindz, pilot Matthew Grote, Rio Rancho, launch site M5
  • Teardrop Cowboy, pilot Stacy Eldridge, Rio Rancho, launch site V5
  • Marauder’s Mark, pilot Dave Eichhorn, Corrales, launch site F2
  • Diamond Girl, pilot Bill Dickey, Corrales, launch site G4
  • Twilight Zone, pilot Ryan Davie, Rio Rancho, launch site J8
  • 770 KKOB, pilot Ron Curry, Corrales, launch site E5
  • Touch by an Angel, pilot Dave Cowen, Corrales, launch site D8
  • Spectrum, pilot Lonnie Carreathers, Cuba, launch site R8
  • Sweet Caroline II, pilot Michael Carpenter, Rio Rancho, launch site U10
  • Tater Tot, pilot Jody Browning, Rio Rancho, launch site L11
  • Tortuga del Fuego, pilot Ken Beebe, Rio Rancho, launch site V4
  • Airmosa, pilot Alex Bartra, Rio Rancho, launch site K9
  • Evil Twin, pilot Kelli Ballengee, Placitas, launch site K9
  • Slainte! Pilot Jeffrey Ashworth, Corrales, launch site C3 (put accent over a in balloon name)
  • 8-Bit, pilot JB Akin, Rio Rancho, launch site U4