Whether it’s conquering a fear of heights, boosting adrenaline or simply enjoying a romantic setting, hot air balloon rides are a top bucket list contender for many — and Rainbow Ryders is here to help.
The North Phoenix-based hot air balloon company, with offices in Albuquerque and Colorado Springs, boasts four decades of experience providing rides to over 500,000 passengers. Rainbow Ryders, headquartered at 715 E. Covey Lane, Unit 100, is the official balloon ride operator at events around the country, including the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and the Colorado Springs Labor Day Lift Off, according to its website.
The Phoenix location offers daily scenic rides year-round over Deer Valley and the Sonoran Desert vistas. Rainbow Ryders seeks to provide an “unforgettable bucket list experience,” founder and owner Scott Appelman explains.
“Being in Arizona, you’ve got the beautiful mountains around us, and the desert landscape — it’s just stunning,” he tells Entertainer! Magazine. “I’ve flown in over 45 states and three different countries. There is nothing like flying here. It’s just so pretty. It’s like the pictures that are painted.”
All company pilots are FAA certified and have nearly 200 years of combined experience, the site continues. With 40 balloons throughout the three locations, Rainbow Ryders fleet sizes vary in order to accommodate guest and party requests.
While each typically services between two and four people, and can fit up to 12 to 14, personal requests seeking smaller baskets are available. Rainbow Ryders is also the only COVID Safe Practice Certified hot air balloon ride company, the site continues.
“When you’re coming out here with your grandma, grandchild or your sweetheart, you know you’re in the best hands possible,” Appelman says. “The simple fact is you’re floating with a bag of hot air and you’re at the mercy of mother nature, which has all of the cool romance that goes with those words, but you just want to make sure you’re with an operator that is reputable and will treat you right.”
The Phoenix location offers yearlong group and private sunrise rides. Sunset rides are also available from November through March due to climate and weather factors.
Adult group ride tickets originally cost $275 but can vary depending on the time of purchase and potential specials. Individual adult tickets for private rides are slated as $425 per person. Both types of rides take about three and a half hours in total, with 45 minutes to one hour of flight time.
“A majority of our people will do this once to fill that bucket list,” Appelman says. “And I am amazed that a lot of people have multiple flights with us and bring back new family members or new friends.”
Sunrise Rainbow Ryders’ passengers are asked to first meet the pilots at the headquarters 30 minutes prior to sunrise. The pilots will then study the wind conditions to determine the best location to launch.
The flight team will drive passengers to and from the drop-off and pickup locations before and after the flights.
Once the balloon is inflated, pilots will fly from ground level to a couple thousand feet above, depending on wind direction and speed. The conductors will steer the balloon by moving it to different altitudes to get different wind patterns, so the height of the balloon will vary throughout the flight.
“The wind will change based on the geographic conditions of where you are,” Appelman says. “You can’t fly through the mountains, because it has weird weather sensations that compromise safety — you won’t see us flying through the mountains.”
Appelman says the flight’s sensations are similar to what it would feel like to float. He adds that it’s very quiet other than the sound of the burner.
“It’s like the ocean. There are different currents down there, and it’s the exact same thing when you’re up in the air,” he says, noting that the pilot will steer by adding more heat.
Each trip concludes with a traditional celebratory toast and a commemorative flight certificate.
Rainbow Ryders prides itself in its safety and training protocols, Appelman says.
All pilots are required to have a minimum of 500 flight hours and are regularly tested for drugs and alcohol, the website reads. They are also required to carry a 2nd Class Airman Medical Certificate.
Appelman says the company has won countless awards and has been named the only official ride operator for world-renowned events “due to the impeccable safety record we hold as a company.”
“All of our pilots are FAA-certified commercial pilots. Rainbow Ryders endorses a very high-level standard of safety and ongoing education to make sure we are providing the safest and most qualified experience possible,” he says. “We are continuing to reinvest into our equipment and personnel to be sure everybody is safe.”
Rainbow Ryders Inc. dates began offering hot air balloon flights in the scenic Rio Grande Valley back in 1983, after Appelman made the decision to walk away from his family’s construction business and pursue his passions above the ground.
“When I was 12 years old, I lived in Albuquerque. They had the first balloon festival there, and I was fascinated as a young boy,” he says. “I love aviation and I saw these balloons fly and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, this is so cool.’”
Appelman attained his license in 1983 and began to fly hot air balloons recreationally. When he launched Rainbow Ryders, he started with one two-passenger balloon and did every task from answering the phones and booking reservations to piloting the flights.
And he hasn’t looked back since.
“I thought, ‘Holy mackerel, I’m doing something that really matters,’” Appelman says. “It’s a luxury item — it’s not like putting dinner on the table, but it’s being part of making people’s lives and being part of that memory. It is probably the greatest privilege of my life.”
The founder went on to originate and organize the Fiesta’s Balloon Glow from 1987 to 1992. He also organized the event’s Special Shapes Rodeo and Albuquerque Aloft, winning the Heritage Award from the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and Tourism Hall of Fame award from the Tourism Association of America.
Appelman shifted his attention to Phoenix in 2008, drawn to the region’s year-round balloon weather, he says.
“None of us are promised tomorrow, and the bucket list thing has become a very big thing — especially since we get younger generations,” he says. “This is a way that people can go on out and fill up their list and do something different and exciting during what has been challenging times.”
For more information, visit rainbowryders.com.