Magazine Feature / People

Alumnus brings ballooning prices down to earth

Not many can say they’ve helped others reach the sky. John Kugler (BSBA ’80) can.

An avid hot air balloonist from McCook, Neb., Kugler has put the hobby within reach for many more folks by refining an old way to utilize alternative lifting gasses and build the massive orbs.

When two of his friends were experimenting with ammonia as a balloon lifting gas, he joined in because his business, the Kugler Co., routinely uses ammonia to make fertilizer.

By the early 1990s he was using anhydrous ammonia vapor to fly balloons rather than helium or hydrogen gasses. The difference? Only $375 for ammonia versus $7,500 to fill a balloon with the other fuels.

He also helped innovate lighter materials for the balloons and baskets, dropping their cost from $40,000 to about $5,000.

The innovations put him in the stratosphere of hot air ballooning history. And not long afterwards, his phone rang. On the other end? Steve Fossett, the first person to fly solo nonstop around the world in a balloon.

“He called to ask about gas balloon lessons,” Kugler says. “I had no clue who he was.”

Kugler ended up teaching Fossett how to fly gas balloons, and he served as inflation director on each of Fossett’s solo round-the-world attempts, including Fossett’s successful flight in June 2002.

Sandi Decker, chair of the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame, calls Kugler the “leading U.S. pilot in gas ballooning.”

Kugler became interested in ballooning while still a student at the University of Denver. That’s when his father, whose idol was Charles Lindberg, told him he bought a hot air balloon.

DU offered a continuing education class with the Life Cycle Balloon Co. in Denver, and Kugler signed up. “Thankfully it was a pass-fail class and I passed. Whew,” he says.

To students, Kugler says, “Don’t ever think that your efforts go unnoticed. Regardless of it being a hobby or a profession, it will lead to success. Ho

Comments are closed.