Racing with the wind

Mar 4, 2005

A degree in engineering doesn't prepare you to be a championship hot air balloon racer, or does it? According to Kettering/GMI grad Al Nels '75, a technical background and an interest in gadgets might just be an advantage in the world of balloon racing.

Engineer and industrial control products sales representative by day - wind racer on weekends, Al Nels '75, is a tough competitor always looking for the technical advantage to improve his edge in the sport of hot air balloon racing.

"One of the things that helps me in competition is that I tend to end up with high tech toys other teams don't have, enabling me to determine what is going on with the wind," said Nels, a two-time World Hot Air Balloon Championship winner. "You are essentially trying to steer a totally un-steerable aircraft. The art is to find different winds at different altitudes and get to point A from point B efficiently," he said.

To make even better use of the "high tech toys," Nels is currently trying to develop an application combining communication technology and management science with help from students and faculty at Kettering. "It involves hardware that will allow me to detect wind information, communicate that information to a computer that will help us make decisions on how best to fly," he said. "A lot of preparing for competition is coming up with how to apply the available technology and use it to your benefit."

He manages to remain competitive and still work his day job with Square D (a division of Schneider Electric), raise four children, serve on the local school system's financial oversight committee, be involved with youth athletics and earn a master's degree. It was a class in the master of Manufacturing Management program at Kettering, that gave him an idea for more high tech toys.

"I took a course from Dr. David Poock, head of the Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering and Business department, that gave me some interesting ideas that may have application in the ballooning world," Nels said. He is currently expecting to graduate with his master's degree in December of 2005.

Showing signs of an engineering mind-set early on, Nels was building hot air balloons out of birthday candles and dry cleaning bags at 13. "I was always interested in flight," he said. "My dad worked at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and my older brother, who was also a GMI graduate, class of '65, had his pilot's license for planes."

Ironically, it wasn't until Nels was a student at Kettering/GMI that he had an opportunity to move from dry cleaning bags to the real thing. "GMI had a program that brought in outside speakers," he said, "one time the topic was hot air ballooning." After hearing the speech Nels volunteered to help crew on hot air balloons in the Flint area.

His first balloon ride was at an air show at Bishop Airport. "It was exactly what I dreamed it would be, the ability to float, to levitate above the tree line at end of the field. I thought 'this is what I want to do,' he said."

"I started training a week later with Tom Allen in Fenton and had my commercial license within a month," he said. But putting himself through Kettering/GMI and working at Chevrolet Manufacturing as a co-op student, didn't allow enough money for flying lessons. "So I called my brother to get a loan so I could learn how to fly," said Nels, "and that's how I got started."

He started racing competitively after many years organizing ballooning events and working as a balloon competition official in the Pinckney and Howell areas. "I started thinking 'I'm on the ground watching everyone else having fun," said Nels, "I wanted to have the fun, so I started flying competitions myself."

His first competition year he didn't do well, taking 35th place in the U.S. National Balloon Championship. "That didn't sit well with me. I wanted to be in the top 10, and my parents said if I made it to the top 10 they would come to the awards banquet. The next year I was number 10," Nels said. Mom and Dad made the trip from Beavercreek to Indianola, Iowa for the ceremony.

Next he made it to 7th place, then 5th the following year. "Then I shot for the top. I went to the 1984 U.S. Nationals with the attitude to win first place, and I did," he said. "At that point I had to ask myself 'What are you going to do next?' so I won again in 1985."

The next logical step was to win a Hot Air Balloon World Championship. The "Worlds" are held every other year in locations all over the globe. The 2004 Worlds were in Mildura, Australia. The 2006 Worlds are scheduled for Motegi, Japan.

Nels qualified for the Worlds in 1987 in Shielleiten, Austria. "I went into the Worlds determined to win, despite the fact I was a flatlander pilot," he said. And although the Austrians were favored to win because of their experience in mountain ballooning, Nels won the World Championship that year, beating 70 other pilots.

The next Worlds were held in Saga City, Japan, in 1989. "I was determined to win again," said Nels, "but I got beat by a German pilot and finished in 2nd. place. I really wanted a second World Championship under my belt, so I went to the Worlds again in 1991 in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada, and ended up winning a second time." This time he beat out 100 other pilots.

"It is a great honor to win the Worlds and a great cultural experience to meet other pilots and share in their customs," he said. To compete at the Hot Air Balloon World Championship, a pilot must qualify and receive a nomination from their aero club. Nels has flown in seven or eight World Championships.

"We are currently getting the U.S. team ready for the Worlds in Motegi, Japan. I don't know if I will be on the team in 2006," said Nels, "but I'm anxious to see the U.S. team win. The quality of U.S. pilots has grown significantly since I started competing."

Generally, three to five U.S. pilots will qualify for Worlds and despite competing against one another for the title, they will pull together as team, shipping equipment, sharing weather information and measuring equipment, according to Nels. "It's better to work together," he said, "a cooperative effort helps everybody have a better chance during the race. It is worth the strategic effort to have someone from the team win and really improves the odds of a U.S. pilot winning."

"If it were the last flight of the World Championship and all five Americans were tied, then everyone would be on their own," he said. "But that's never happened, usually one or two pull ahead and the other members will sacrifice their results to sample winds and feed information to help the pilots with a lead."

In Worlds, a cumulative score is based on multiple flights. Each flight has a task to be completed for which a pilot can earn up to 1000 points. So, a pilot with a low score will act as scout for a higher scored pilot to help them win the World Championship.

Ballooning has become more than a personal hobby for Nels, of Beavercreek, Ohio, it has developed into a family affair with all four of his children serving as balloon crew along the way. Oldest daughter Rebecca, 27, is anxious to learn how to fly, but the successful entrepreneur is "too busy to do much flying right now," said Nels. Daughter Melissa, 25, loves to balloon but she is not interested in learning how to pilot. Andrew, 16, solo-ed the balloon on his 14th birthday and 14-year-old Ashley just earned her student pilot's license. "My wife Lorene is involved on occasion," Nels said, "but she says I take it too seriously and it's not as much fun as should be."

But for Nels, the "fun" is still in the levitating, floating above the tree line, and trying out the latest high tech toys.

Currently working on a master's degree in Manufacturing Management at Kettering, Nels did some graduate study at Central Michigan University and the University of Dayton working toward an MBA, but decided not to finish either program.

"Your lifestyle starts to change and you think 'what do I need that degree for?'" he said. "But when I turned 50 my wife said 'you really ought to finish.' Kettering looked like it had a good graduate program, and since GMI had prepared me so well in my undergraduate education, I though it would be a good choice for my master's degree."

"I didn't know what to expect of a distance learning program," Nels said, "anyone who thinks distance learning is going to be easy is dead wrong in regard to Kettering. The program has awesome teachers and a lot of homework. I can't say enough good about it."

After Nels won Worlds in 1987, he returned to the "real world" to find hundreds of messages and voicemails - mostly solicitations, "so I got good at throwing most of them away." One day he received a voicemail that said 'please call so-and-so at Forbes.' "Thinking they were trying to sell me a magazine subscription I disregarded it. A week or two later I got another message "please call so-and-so from Mr. Forbes' Office." I figured they were really anxious to sell me a subscription, but I called back anyway. The secretary answered 'Mr. Forbes' Office,' and when I told her who I was she said Mr. Forbes wanted to invite me to his chateau in France as his guest and would I bring the balloon. I thought she was joking, but she was serious. So, my wife and I and two guests shipped my equipment to Malcom Forbes' chateau in France. There were 20 people with balloons there and some of Forbes' friends. The head of our company was there and he introduced me to Walter and Betsy Cronkite. Walter wanted a ride in my balloon the following morning so we made arrangements to fly early.

"Later that afternoon Cronkite introduced me to Casper Weinberger. I have always wanted to ride in a jet fighter and Weinberger had just left being the Secretary of Defense, so I thought 'here's my chance, if I'm ever going to know the right person to tell I want to ride in the backseat of fast mover, this is it.' Casper asked me what he needed to do to get a balloon ride in the morning. Now, I fly a small balloon, strictly for competition, it's rare we can get two people AND me in there, but I was trying to figure out how to do this when Cronkite stepped forward and said 'Cap, Al and I are going to be flying the entire weekend. It's a small balloon and it isn't going to work to take two people up.' He told Weinberger he'd have to fly with someone else.

"I never would have believed I would be in the situation were Walter Cronkite was telling Casper Weinberger he couldn't fly with me."

Written by Dawn Hibbard
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