Villager stays grounded by taking to the sky
Hot air balloons have been a huge part of Art Hodge’s life for more than 30 years.
Art started crewing for a friend in Michigan while in college, and because his pal couldn’t afford to pay a helper, they struck a deal: one free ride for every six times Art helped get him up in the air and back down again.
“To be quite honest, I didn’t know if I really wanted to go for a ride,” Art says with a chuckle.
After graduating, Art became a physical education teacher, but continued crewing. When his friend vowed to teach him the ropes, there was no turning back.
In 1985, Art secured his private pilot’s license, and later that year, his commercial license. The two also began piloting for RE/MAX in the Detroit Metro area—a gig that lasted 20 years.
After that, Art worked for Renaissance Balloons, but upon retiring from teaching, moved to The Villages and left ballooning behind.
“I no longer had balloon equipment of my own since flying for RE/MAX, so I thought, ‘This is it. I’m done,’” says Art.
Fast forward about 10 years to May 2021 when a phone call from his son Johnny (also a hot air balloon pilot) changed everything. Art agreed to serve as Johnny’s crew chief for a show in Finley, Ohio. And when he was able to use his tethering and wind expertise to guide Johnny through bad weather, the piloting bug bit him again.
“I’ve got some ballooning still left in me,” Art thought, before reinstating his license.
In October 2022, he accompanied Johnny to New Mexico for the 50-year anniversary of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, where more than 700 balloons took flight.
Art calls the event a pilot’s dream, primarily because of the special shaped balloons, plus the challenge of steering them.
In Albuquerque, the two flew alongside one another for the first time. Art piloted ‘Duma the Cheetah’ and Johnny manned ‘Splash the Penguin.’
“It was a very special day I’ll never forget,” Art says.
Today, Art, 70, is counting the days to his 10-year anniversary as a gate attendant so he can retire and spend more time with his girlfriend … and in the air.
He’ll offer occasional paid rides to support his hobby, but for the most part, ballooning is something he does for the sheer love of it.
Granted, there are risks. Art says there are power lines and trees to contend with, you never know where exactly you’ll land, and that each landing is somewhat of a controlled crash.
“Ballooning becomes a way of life and questions like, ‘What’s the weather?’ and ‘When can I fly again?’ are always on your mind,” Art says. “It’s relaxing, and it’s hard work, but I enjoy the interaction with people and can’t wait to devote more time to it.”