There’s an earthy symbolism in John Pata’s story. As a career firefighter, he extinguishes fires with water: a grounded, life-saving career. And when he’s not doing that, he’s using heat and air to raise himself into the sky as a hot air balloon pilot. This year, he’ll help Torc reach new heights over Albuquerque.
Hot air ballooning isn’t a particularly rare thing for Albuquerque natives. The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is the largest hot air balloon event in the world, with over 500 balloons — including 118 special shape balloons in 2022 — flying through the bright, clear New Mexico skies.
Born and raised in the city, John has been to every Balloon Fiesta in some capacity, starting at just six months old when the spectacle obviously made a deep impression on him. When he was in elementary school, he built balloon baskets out of milk crates. In middle school, he used wood shop to build a full-size balloon basket.
It was during those years, through his friend Steve and Steve’s balloon-owning family, that John finally got his first balloon rides. “I started learning about ballooning from them and they gave me a spot on their crew as a teenager.” He also chased a balloon he saw flying west of the city one day. When it landed, he helped the pilot out. He ended up crewing for that balloon all through high school too.
The first balloon he ever owned wasn’t of the full-sized variety though. “My dad helped me buy a quarter-sized remote-control balloon first, for $3500,” says John. “I still fly that one.” He acquired his private pilot’s license and his first full-sized balloon in 1999 and his commercial license in 2008. From that point on, he’s flown in every Balloon Fiesta, either with his own balloon or for corporate, high-visibility sponsors such as Pepsi. He’s also trained on the famous Smokey Bear balloon, which travels the nation.
John has never missed a Balloon Fiesta, either. “I’ve been as a spectator, as part of the logistics and safety crews, as a pilot, on and on,” he says. “The Fiesta is my vacation.” With its clear, blue-sky vistas, and flat terrain, Albuquerque boasts some of the best weather and visibility for hot-air ballooning in the world. “We average 350 days out of the year for optimal flying, as opposed to other places which have ‘season’ for flying,” says John.