The man in the balloon
By: Madeline England
September 25, 2017
“This ride’s going to be cut short today guys so were going to land soon”, Cameron said to me while 500 feet up in the air.
We slowly drifted down close to an interstate and I thought surely we wouldn’t land on the highway. We neared a tree that Arthur pointed out to the pilot, Cameron. He responded laughing, “I was hoping we’d hit it and we’d slow down”. Sure enough, the basket tipped off the guardrail and the balloon was absolutely landing on the interstate. Thankfully at 7 am traffic was light so cars slowed to go around the hot air balloon.
Meet Cameron, who spends his weekends flying hot air balloons with his 5 year old twin daughters and spends his weekdays maintaining Georgia Southern’s campus and doing standup comedy in downtown Statesboro. At 34, Cameron has seen more places than many do in their lifetime including three tours across seas being in the military.
Earlier that morning, prior to the unplanned landing, we agreed to meet at IHOP before sunrise where I would meet the crew and load up in the van to drive to the field where we would later take off.
I was greeted by two blonde, cheerful little girls in their matching outfits playing with their dolls in the parking lot. It was still pitch black outside and I was shocked at the energy the two had so early in the morning.
Cameron had told me earlier in the week that he’d be flying early Saturday if I had wanted to come watch the take off, I gladly agreed. Little did I know, there was going to be room for me in the balloon that chilly morning.
“Looks like there’s gonna be room for you Maddie, you feel like goin up today?”, Cameron asked me. I couldn’t grab the pen and safety agreement fast enough. I’d dreamed of being in a hot air balloon. I hopped in the front seat while the girls and two of Cameron’s flight assistants were in the back of the van. “There’s breakfast for ya, help yourself” Cameron said, pointing at the box of Daylight Donuts box on the dash. I appreciated the hospitality and said no thanks.
We pulled up to an empty field. We piled out of the van and the crew unloaded the big sack of nylon that would soon hold us hundreds of feet in the air.
“Put on these gloves…now hold the ropes up until the air fills”
The grass was dewy and the fog lay over the freshly mowed grass like a light blanket. The sun was peaking over the trees and I’m suddenly wishing I brought a jacket. Before long, the sun would be up so that thought didn’t last long.
“When I turn on the propane, the balloon will lift up so as it does, run back to the basket and put all of your weight on it so it stays on the ground”, Cameron directed me.
While waiting I got to hang with the twins and asked if they liked ballooning, they smiled and looked at each other and giggled. One timidly answered, “Yeah, daddy does this a lot he lets us bring our dollies.”
I had never been this close to a hot air balloon let alone gotten to ride in one. So much goes into the process of getting one off the ground, I had no idea.
“Adelene and Arabella, you stay in the car and I’ll see you when I land, you girls can’t ride today there’s no room”, he shouted to his girls playing in the van. They play with their dolls not phased by the loud noise of the fire shooting into the massive balloon.
We take off, slow at first then speeding up into the chilly morning air. “You will feel a little uneasy the first five minutes but you’ll get acclimated” Cameron said to his fellow crewmember, Arthur, who also had never been the one in the balloon, and me.
The sun was glistening through the fog and you could see the tops of trees for miles and miles. It was silent up there, just you and the crisp morning sky.
All was seemingly well until Cameron noticed the propane leaking down off of the burner pipe. I did not know this until later because Cameron stayed completely calm and collected. We then dropped slowly, making our way to the interstate where we would wrap up the short-lived flight.
I asked if that had happened before, the emergency landing, he said that it was only his second time having to cut a trip short because he felt uneasy flying with only one propane tank. I was shocked at how calm he stayed during the landing, being that the balloon ride could have easily ended in an “on board fire”, he mentioned.
Ballooning runs in Cameron’s family, as he is a second-generation balloon pilot. His father flew on the weekends and he rode along even when he’d rather be watching cartoons in bed on Saturday mornings. He didn’t know at the time how cool his dad’s job was.
Ballooning hasn’t always been Cameron’s main focus or hobby. We took a walk down memory lane into his previous military days.
Joining the air force was no tough decision for Cameron Jones. He had too much to drink, just like we all did on our twenty first birthday but that didn’t stop him from jumping on a one-way flight to South Korea to join the air force. When stationed in the dangerous country at the time, members of the military came alone, no family, just you and your new family, your air force group. There was no choice but to become each other’s rock.
Having never traveled before, a trip across the world will sure rock your world. “I had never been further than the Mississippi river, I was just a good ole Georgia Boy getting on an airplane”, Cameron said.
Seoul Airport is among the biggest and busiest airports in the world. Suddenly he remembered how small he really was. Trying to find any sign in English or an English speaking person was harder than he thought. Luckily, the first person to understand him was willing to show him quite the time in downtown, South Korea.
Lost with tears in his eyes, this man made it a mission to get this young boy to his base, but before he could do that, a hangover and 24 hours without sleep wasn’t an excuse not to have a few more drinks in his new foreign city. Cameron is not the one to turn down a good time, ever. The word alcohol may sound different in a different language, but it sure does taste the same, he thought.
The world was his playground. Addicted to travel, Cameron let the air force locate him wherever he was needed. Without a wife and kids at the time, exploring the world he felt responsible as he was fighting for the homeland. Places like Japan, Kuwait, Hawaii, Denver, the Philippines, Marshall Islands, Alaska and more were places Cameron called home.
Birds of a feather flock together, you get to know someone by who they spend their time with. When in the van on the way home from ballooning I got a glimpse of what Cameron was before his ballooning business and children.
“Cameron and I have quite a history, I met him at a balloon festival in Arizona. We would wake up at dusk, get the balloon up and go to concerts all day, drink till we couldn’t anymore and do drugs all through the night, get a couple hours of sleep and wake up and do it all again”, Arthur told me about their crazy days before business took off. He and Cameron started off partying together, now they’re close-knit coworkers.
In the midst of all the adventure, Cameron flew home to bury his mother who passed from cancer in 2003 after years of suffering from terminal cancer. Family still remains a huge part of his life, it was obvious in the small amount of time I visited how much the girls love their daddy and his jokes. I could tell from the way his face lights up when he talks about them that they have a special bond, like 3 peas in a pod.
Days in the military came to a close and Cameron began to get closer with nature. He worked on a fishing boat in Alaska, 12 hours a day in the sun in a 30-foot fiberglass boat “It will humble you… very quickly”. While in Alaska, hitchhiking became his favorite hobby. “Hitchhiking is the most fascinating things to me, it’s the coolest thing to bum a ride from people you don’t know”. Meeting new people was an experience as he stood on the side of the road with a sign reading, “Will trade salmon for ride”.
“I am what I am and that’s all that I am, I’m a character”, Cameron tells me, shrugging his shoulders with a grin on his face.
“If I could describe Cameron in one word, it’d be eccentric”, Casey Rohlen told me. You can find Casey and Cameron making tons of people laugh every Wednesday at comedy night.
Cameron hates fitting in; his sense of humor, fashion and demeanor is goofy and he wouldn’t prefer it any other way.
I asked Cameron if he had any regrets and his response was “Marriage”. He’s never been a person to tie down; literally, he spends his favorite days in the air. Looking back, he’s called countless places home but he’s back where it all started, Statesboro, Georgia.
He ended our interview with this, “I’ve been around the world a few times, I love Statesboro… its home to me… it’s in my bones. It grounds me.”
Sometimes you don’t realize all the adventure you need is right in your backyard.
Cameron Jones, a man that thought he needed to see the world for adventure comes home and lives his adventure.