The Jack Ponticelli Storyin Hot Air Balloonist Story
Sometimes, the love of hot air ballooning has a significant impact on your future. For Jack and Debbie Ponticelli, getting the flying bug early on, before they got married, changed the trajectory of their life together—in a very good way!
“Thirty-nine years ago, my prospective wife, Debbie Yelencsics, took me to Glen Falls, New York, to meet her college roommate,” Jack said. “In reality, it was to see if I was marriage material…I guess I passed the test; we’re still married! Because it was Adirondack Balloon Fest weekend, there were little hot air balloons on porches all over town. Being an aircraft mechanic, I was intrigued when I saw all the excitement and balloons taking flight.” That was the game-changer—Jack immediately decided that flying balloons was for him. He bought a program, found out where most of the NJ pilots lived, and a few years later, he and Debbie moved there. “I told Debbie it was a good place to raise kids. Once there, I started to crew and work on balloons in exchange for lessons. The rest is history.”
Jack learned to fly, like many balloon pilots do, by getting instruction from several commercial pilots. “Six instructors each taught me a different aspect—contour flying, high wind and short-field landings, using the wind for steerage, understanding weather,” Jack explained. “A New Jersey Firefly dealer, George Russell, spent the most time with me. The most important challenge I figured out? Knowing when not to fly.”
Jack told me that Debbie is the only person who puts up with his nonsense. “She tolerates my three 45-foot-long containers—one with farm stuff, one with balloon stuff, and one with just stuff. I was given a hat with “Capt. Jack” on it from my instructor’s wife when I passed my check ride. I think it’s in box #1, maybe.” As crew chief, Debbie’s never lost him, although, before cell phones, it sometimes took her a while to find him. “She’s always given me an allowance so I can get decent radios and stuff. For her, the fun part is never knowing where I’m going to land.”
The People Lift Us
Jack’s balloon ride business was the first in western New Jersy with a website, advertising on the web. Sharing ballooning with new passengers and friendships with crew and other balloonists are his favorite perks. “I have a passion for flying anyone who wants to fly.” Indeed, Jack’s special love is flying special-needs passengers and bringing a smile to their faces. “Alex is one of my favorite passengers. I met him when he was a year old; his parents have been our sponsors at Glens Falls for over 25 years, and Alex’s excitement has only grown over all those years,” Jack smiled. “He’s autistic and loves balloons and me. I am one just a handful of people that he’ll hug and allow to get close. Working over a five-year-period, with some instruction, I got Alex to tether and fly the balloon across the field. He always makes me feel good. In 2021, I hope to do a one-hour flight with him.”
Ballooning gives pilots interesting experiences. “On 9/11, I watched the towers burn from 60 miles away, not knowing how many of my passengers died that day,” he shared. “I’ve taken thousands of people flying and worked with lots of pilots. My balloon hero is Tracy Barnes—it was an honor getting to know him. My life has been enriched and blessed through this amazing sport.”
A Flying Kaleidoscope
Jack has flown lots of different balloons in lots of exciting places. He’s worked for Firefly Balloons first as the New Jersey dealer for six years, and after moving south, as sales manager for the last 17 years. “I’ve had the honor of representing Firefly at Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta for over 15 years.” He has flown in most eastern states and in Salvinia at the foot of the Alps. Adirondack Balloon Fest, and of course Carolina BalloonFest, are special. Jack and Debbie have five balloons, but the current favorite is a 105 lightweight rainbow-colored FireFly, Carolina Kaleidoscope. “Twenty-five years ago, my daughter and I completely rebuilt my primary basket in the garage…and I am still flying it! My goal now is to fly at Albuquerque’s 50th and then build a small lightweight or special shape balloon and fly around the country, especially out west. I started going to ABQ for the 20th, then every five years until I started to go each year for Firefly.” Jack plans to stay in the air for many more exciting years.