JIM AHERN’S BALLOONING CAREER was peaking right as things were starting to take off. “I was in the airline business before ballooning,” recalls the 84-year-old. “Back in 1978, ballooning was just a hobby.”

At the time, Ahern had just sold his first balloon to Sid Cutter at World Balloon Corporation, landing the Illinois native in Albuquerque, where he began managing corporate contracts for the company. It also linked him with Cutter, who, just a few years earlier, helped establish the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta with a 13-balloon race celebrating TV station KOB 4’s 50th anniversary. “Then ballooning became a career,” says Ahern, who flew corporate balloons for Kellogg’s, Pacific Southwest Airlines, Wells Fargo, and Anheuser-Busch.

“Ballooning is one of those things that most everybody likes as a spectator, but they don’t know anything about,” he says. “But once they learn they can be more than a spectator, it can be life-changing.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean taking pilot lessons and purchasing a new $40,000 balloon. Volunteering on a crew to chase the balloon to its landing destination or unpack and pack the envelope for a flight can be equally rewarding.

Pilots getting ready for the Balloon Fiesta Mass Ascension in 2022. Photograph by NMTD.

“I’ve had people crew for me who were millionaires,” Ahern says. “And they’re out packing up the balloon. I like the fact that everyone seems to pull together. It’s kind of a brotherhood in a way.”

Like most of his generation, Ahern is now mostly retired from piloting. “It’s hard work,” he says. “Lots of heavy lifting, quick decision-making, and responsibility. As pilots age, they have a hard choice to make: When do you step down from flying?

Still semiactive in ballooning, he occasionally flies or crews with friends and volunteers for Balloon Fiesta. He understands the sport is graying and the glory days may have passed, but he remains optimistic. “It will always be popular here, because we have the name recognition,” he says. “There are enough local balloons that they can generate their own tribe and keep their own tribe going.”

Read more: At 17, Kierstynn Wehner is continuing her family’s legacy and recruiting young people to the sport.