While the average age of competitive balloon pilots is about 50, the Young Guns U.S. National Championship aims to excite and encourage younger competitors to continue in the sport.

The event is for pilots ages 16 to 29 and takes place today through Sunday within the broader competition of the Great Texas Balloon Race in Longview.

“The idea of the ‘young guns’ came into play in 2017 because of the ‘graying’ of the pilots,” balloon race Chair Michelle Ford said. “The Great Texas Balloon Race is hoping to grow the sport through this event.”

Seven Young Guns will compete in Longview this weekend.

“We have our hometown boy,” Ford said, referring to Blake Aldridge. “We’re super excited.”

Aldridge, 20, grew up in Longview and became involved in ballooning through his parents and was trained by balloon race founder Bill Bussey. His mother worked for Bussey as a dental assistant at his practice before both of his parents became his balloon crew members.

“They’ve been doing it ever since,” Aldridge said. “I was born into it.”

He worked as a crew member before deciding to become a pilot at 14, earning his private license at 17 and commercial license just a year later.

“It was really cool,” Aldridge said. “I took it for granted for a long time. I never realized because I grew up around balloons and him, I didn’t know what it really meant to be trained by him.”

Bussey is a world record-holding hot air pilot with more than 4,000 hours of flight time, Aldridge said.

“He taught me really well, and he was tough,” he said. “He really made sure I was prepared, and I’m thankful for it.”

So far, Aldridge has about 110 hours of flight time.

“It’s challenging, but it’s fun at the same time,” said Aldridge, who is studying economics at Texas A&M University.

{h3 dir=”ltr”}‘Good friends’{/h3}

Meeting other pilots and getting to know other young guns is a highlight.

That’s how Aldridge met Cameron Wall, 22, who lived in Longview while he was attending LeTourneau University.

“We’ve been good friends,” Aldridge said.

On Thursday morning, the two ended up landing next to each other after practice flights, and Aldridge helped Wall pack up his equipment.

“He was going to high school here, and I just happened to be here for a few years going to college,” Wall said. “We were the only two young ones in ballooning in the area, so we became good friends through that.”

Wall became involved in the sport when he was 13. He initially started out in aviation at LeTourneau but ended up switching to early childhood education with an emphasis on special education.

“After about six weeks, I realized I liked flying balloons a lot more than planes,” Wall said. “I like the adventure of it, like, not knowing where I was going to land. The plane felt more like a bus with wings.”

Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Wall moved to Las Vegas after college where he works giving balloon rides and training.

“I am a huge advocate in getting more people involved that are my age,” Wall said. “I trained three pilots under the age of 29 last summer. One of my passions is getting more youth involved.”

Wall said he is blessed to be able to fly balloons as a career and as a hobby.

The first Young Guns was held in 2019, starting at the Great Texas Balloon Race, but with the cancellation of the 2020 event because of COVID-19, this is the second Young Guns competition.

In 2019, Aldridge took second place and Wall took third.

“I’m looking for revenge,” Wall said, laughing. “He got me.”

Ford said the Young Guns event is “very similar to the normal balloon race,” adding that the scoring is slightly different with targets than the rest of the race.

“It will help the participants who will go to the junior world’s in Poland,” she said.

Wall was able to go to Poland to compete for Team USA at the Junior World Championship in 2019 with four other pilots from the United States.

“It was incredible,” Wall said.

The Young Gun pilots are a small community, and most get involved with balloons long before they can work on a license.

“We need to continue the sport,” Ford said. “That’s our hope, that we’re encouraging them by giving them an opportunity to compete with some of the best pilots in the United States. It’s an opportunity for confidence building.”

{h3 dir=”ltr”}‘Social activity’{/h3}

Spencer Copas, 22, grew up in Sellersburg, Indiana, with balloon pilot parents and earned his pilot license four years ago.

“I’ve been around ballooning my whole life,” he said. This is his first time competing in the Great Texas Balloon Race.

“My favorite thing about ballooning is the social aspect,” Copas said. “Ballooning is an inherently social activity because you can’t do it without a crew to help you out. I love getting my friends involved and sharing the magic of ballooning with them.”

Daniel Sasser, 29, drove from Charlotte, North Carolina, on Thursday to take part in his first and last Young Guns event.

He said he has been involved in ballooning since he was 6 with his family. As he grew up, he started crewing and working on his license.

“I consider myself very fortunate that I found my passion early in life,” Sasser said. “Flying is awesome, but that’s really just half the story — the people you meet and the places you get to go. I consider myself blessed to be able to pursue my passion with the help of wonderful people.”

He has competed at the top three balloon competitions in the world in New Mexico, Mexico and France. The balloon community is his second family, he said.

“You couldn’t choose a better group to be a part of,” Sasser said.

He said the efforts to recruit young people into the sport are making a difference, especially in his community in North Carolina.

“We want to see this continue,” Sasser said. “I think of the Great Texas Balloon Race as one of the best events in the country. I am excited to be here and honored to be here again.”

Joe Seymour, 22, was on the road for more than 10 hours Thursday as he drove from Indianola, Iowa, to Texas. He was on his way to pick up his mother from Dallas before heading to Longview to take part in his favorite hobby.

“My dad was a pilot, so I’ve been around balloons for 22 years,” he said. His father passed away before he could teach Seymour how to fly. Seymour credits his father for his love of ballooning.

“I knew at some point I was going to get my licence,” he said. “He passed away, and I decided to go get it.”

He officially obtained his license at age 18.

“I think it’s a good thing to get more of the younger generation to do it,” Seymour said. “There was a while there when not many people were getting into it, but in the past five years there’s been a spike.”

Duncan Hernandez of Albuquerque and Colby Barsketis of Napa, California, are also competing in the Young Guns competition.

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Courtney Stern is a public safety reporter covering a wide range of topics. She grew up in Baltimore and later earned a journalism degree from the University of Miami. Stern moved to East Texas from Iowa with her husband and two dogs, Pebbles and Bam Bam.