BY JULIE GRAY
Hot air balloon maker Andy Richardson, 30, grew up a mile south of Oliver Winery on the outskirts of Bloomington. “As a young boy, I would see the winery’s balloons flying over,” remembers Richardson, now the owner of Adams Balloons in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Richardson’s mother took him to the winery on weekends to see if he could help out on the chase crews that rig, inflate, follow, and deconstruct the balloons.
Then the magic day came: “Bill Oliver [Oliver Winery CEO] took me for my first ride in July 1994,” Richardson recalls. “From that day, I decided I wanted to fly balloons.” Oliver continues to mentor Richardson, in ballooning and in business, and the two talk — and balloon together — regularly.
In high school, when most kids were getting their first cars, Richardson got his first balloon. After graduation, he enrolled in the aviation program at Vincennes University, but flying airplanes didn’t interest him. “You point the nose of the plane in the direction you want to go, and then you just wait,” he says. “In a balloon, it’s constant thinking. You’re totally at the mercy of Mother Nature, but it’s actual physical flying.”
After only three months at Vincennes, Richardson persuaded the university to let him teach hot-air ballooning. Instead of going to class, he joined the adjunct faculty. At about the same time, he began repairing and rebuilding balloons, eventually establishing his own company and branching out into balloon design and manufacturing.
Richardson moved his company to a hangar at Monroe County Airport in 2009, and in 2014, he moved again, to Albuquerque, the ballooning capital of the world. There, the flying season is 12 months a year compared to Bloomington’s five. At about the same time, he bought the company established by balloon-making legend Mike Adams.
Richardson never met Adams [1939–1985], but Bill Oliver knew him well. “I bought my first balloon from Mike Adams in 1976,” Oliver says. In fact, Richardson’s decisive first balloon ride with Oliver was in that 1976 basket, which Oliver has since given to Richardson. “Mike Adams would be so pleased to know that Andy has taken over his company,” Oliver says. “They are both fearless, spirited, fun guys. What Andy has done is pretty remarkable. I mean . . . Wow.”
Richardson’s mother might disagree: “My mom’s a little frustrated I didn’t graduate from college and go to work for somebody and get a regular paycheck,” Richardson says. “When she gets on me, I like to remind her one of my aircraft is on display at the Smithsonian Museum.”
In June of this year, Richardson delivered a balloon to the museum bearing the Smithsonian name to go along with a basket made by Adams’ company in 1976.