Reprinted with permission from “Up, up and away all year long” by Ann Walker, 2007. 3310, Edition 30, Copyright  by The Yuma Sun.
Up, up and away all year long
Ann Walker, Special to 33.10
By Ann Walker, SPECIAL TO 33.10
It's a testament to the wonder of flight that a safety expert who's afraid of heights became a hot-air balloon pilot.
But that's what happened to Fred Bookwalter, who with his wife Susan, runs Tranquil Sensations, Yuma's only balloon company.
Fred was studying for a master's in industrial safety in Albuquerque - a ballooning mecca - when he was introduced to the sport by pilot classmates.
Even then, it took six months as part of the chase group on the ground before Fred could be enticed into a basket, with a promise that they wouldn't go higher than he could jump. But his friend distracted Fred by having him operate the propane burner that heats the air to lift the balloon - and next thing he knew, they were 1,500 feet in the air. And he was hooked.
Hooked enough that two weeks later, he had his own balloon. Hooked enough that in 2001, after a move to Chandler, he was Arizona state champion. Hooked enough that after seven years of coming to Yuma for the Colorado River Crossing Balloon Festival - and being sponsored by a group of Yuma Proving Ground employees - he took a job at YPG and moved to here to start the business.
Now, Bookwalter entertains customers 6,000 to 7,000 feet above Yuma, where the view extends past Dateland, south to the Sea of Cortez and west to the Salton Sea. Most flights last about an hour to 90 minutes; takeoff and landing sites vary with the wind. Afterward, flyers enjoy a champagne brunch. Gift certificates are available, plus packages for weddings or team-building.
This will be the third season for the business, and while Susan says that "chasing is more fun than going in the balloon," there's one thing that hasn't changed: Fred Bookwalter, the guy who won't go up a ladder, is high on flight.