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Hot-air balloonist honored

A Moorhead native has become the first hot-air balloonist to be inducted into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame. Jon Kolba, 50, who has been a firefighter in Sioux Falls, S.D., for the past 22 years, was inducted in Spearfish, S.D. "It was a...

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A Moorhead native has become the first hot-air balloonist to be inducted into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame.

Jon Kolba, 50, who has been a firefighter in Sioux Falls, S.D., for the past 22 years, was inducted in Spearfish, S.D.

"It was a huge honor for me," says Kolba, who graduated from Moorhead High School in 1972. "There's a lot of history in South Dakota with balloons, so to be recognized for my accomplishments in the sport and to be inducted as the first balloonist meant a great deal to me."

But it was in North Dakota where Kolba was introduced to hot-air ballooning and was bitten by the ballooning bug.

His mother, Virginia Kolba of Moorhead, purchased a ride for her son in a hot-air balloon.

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"I'll never forget it," says Jon Kolba. "It was a beautiful morning flight over Fargo. I figured any sport where you can have champagne in the morning on an empty stomach is something I have to be a part of."

Kolba explained that there are many traditions in hot-air ballooning and one of them is having a glass of champagne with your passengers and ground crew after making a successful flight.

When Kolba was attending Minnesota State University Moorhead, where he earned a degree in sociology, he took a ground school for balloon piloting being offered as a Fargo adult education class.

One thing led to another and Kolba went on to obtain his private and commercial hot-air balloon pilot certificates after arriving in Sioux Falls.

But it was in 2000 when he accomplished his greatest feat in hot-air ballooning. He set a world record for time aloft: 21 hours, 55 minutes and 1 second.

"The only new balloon I've ever owned is the one I set the world record in," recalls Kolba. "We launched from Jamestown, N.D., on Feb. 11, 2000 in 15-below-zero weather. In a duration flight, you want to fly in the coldest weather possible."

He landed the next day near the Canadian border with the record in hand. "I could have stayed up longer because I had three hours of fuel left, but I was headed into the Canadian wilderness."

His U.S. and world flight duration records were recognized by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, with headquarters in Switzerland, and Kolba was awarded the Montgolfier Diploma, the highest international award in ballooning. He was only the 10th American to receive the award in the hot-air balloon category.

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Kolba, past president of the Sioux Falls Ballooning Association, spends a fair amount of time in classrooms talking to children about hot-air ballooning.

He plans to keep ballooning as long as he can. "My retirement plans include ballooning. I'd like to hook up with a large corporation and fly balloons after I retire from firefighting. Many companies now own hot-air balloons for public relations purposes."

Are there other balloonists in the family? "My sons (Joe, 19, and Jeff, 18) have grown up with ballooning, but the interest isn't there," says Kolba. "I'm ready to teach them if it ever is."

Readers can reach Terry DeVine at (701) 241-5515 or tdevine@forumcomm.com

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