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Spirits Rising

Flying high with a hot air balloon captain


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James Lawson

Name: James 
Emmanuel “Manny” Lawson
Company: Sky’s the Limit
Age: 39
Hometown: Encinitas
Favorite place to fly: Africa,
over the lions and tigers.
When he’s not flying, he’s…
hanging with daughters Kennedy,
3, and Devin, 9.
Something you don’t know about ballooning until you go... There’s no turbulence!

hot air balloons James Lawson

James Lawson’s balloon rose up over Encinitas and later landed in Rancho Bernardo safely, despite the dark clouds that blew in and a 40-mile-an-hour slide down a hill. With his heart thumping and a wild-eyed grin, he knew he had found his calling. And now, 20 years later, he’s one of the most avid balloon pilots in the country.

Lawson has long been a man of the sky, fascinated by flight as a young boy growing up in Encinitas. With his sights set on being a pilot early on, he started flying all types of aircraft at age 16. Though he was eventually hired by United Airlines, Lawson couldn’t pass the medical exam for commuter pilots, due to a minor health condition, eclipsing his plans for an aviation career.  

One evening, while he was working with his father at their pool cleaning company, a hot air balloon sailed overhead, which prompted a sense of longing. “I needed to get back into the air,” he recalls. The next day Lawson saw an ad for flying hot air balloons and headed to Lake Elsinore for a demo flight. Enveloped in a deep fog bank the first time up, Lawson thought, This is cool. This is for me. He started taking lessons and got his license in a record seven days. Immediately, he bought a four- to five-person craft and called his dad, who reluctantly showed up to help as crew on the inaugural flight.

“If the weather’s good, I am flying every day,” says Lawson, who helms his family-owned-and-operated business, Sky’s the Limit, and its fleet of four balloons. He’s also one of just 24 pilots in the nation allowed to fly passengers during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, an event that draws close to a million people each fall.

His role as the sole sales rep for Ultramagic, the leading balloon manufacturing company in Spain, has led the intrepid pilot deeper into adventure. Just this past summer, Lawson piloted one of five balloons for Ultramagic that sailed over Mount Kilimanjaro at 26,000 feet, breaking the world record of the most balloons to pass over the summit at the same time. “It took four and a half hours to cross over. We had to wear oxygen masks and supply oxygen to the burners so they’d stay lit,” he says.

But that wasn’t the scariest part. “After flying over the top, we landed on the backside of a mountain in Tanzania and 200 guys came running at us with machetes, trampling the balloon and chanting. They threatened to kill us if we didn’t give them money. Fortunately, I was wearing clothing and jewelry from the Maasai [African tribe] which they recognized, but my comrades were being harassed. We finally gave them about $250 and talked them into taking our equipment to the village so we could get transported out.”

In the relatively tame territory of North County, Lawson takes people from ages three to 103 on recreational balloon adventures, rising on average to 3,000 feet. “San Diego has the most ideal conditions for flying.” He loves watching people’s reactions when ballooning for the first time. “It bonds perfect strangers.”

So what’s next for the balloon man?  “I just added a new balloon to my fleet, made for Hendrick’s Gin, that’s one of the most beautiful in the world because of its intricate design—each panel was hand-dyed and sewn,” he says. Lawson will take his new prized possession to Albuquerque for the balloon festival, and then it will reside in Encinitas. But naturally, he’s got more adventure on the horizon: “I am headed over to Switzerland for the Château-d’Oex hot air balloon event in early 2013. I want to fly over the Swiss Alps.”

For Lawson, the possibilities are limitless, as he seemingly has no fear. “I am not ever scared when flying, as I feel safer in a balloon than I do in my own car.”

"San Diego has the most ideal conditions for flying," Lawson says. "It bonds perfect strangers."

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