Edit ModuleShow Tags

Spirits Rising

Flying high with a hot air balloon captain


Published:

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."

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

More »Related Stories

2017 Readers' Choice Travel Awards

We polled online readers to find out the top places to stay and play for our first-ever Readers’ Choice Travel Awards.

The Show About Shows Podcast #8: Steam Powered Giraffe, Vanessa Dinning

We put on accents with the dialect coach of Coronado Playhouse’s The 39 Steps, and geek out over SD’s original singing automaton troupe

10 Hot Plates

San Diego restaurant rumors, openings, and coming-soons in April
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. Vote Now for San Diego's Best Restaurants 2017
    From poke to taco shops, you choose San Diego’s best eats and drinks in 88 categories
  2. 103 Dishes to Eat in San Diego before You Die
    Here's Made, our little black book of San Diego's best food
  3. Why Restaurants Are Adding a Surcharge, and Why Diners Should Gladly Pay It
    Restaurateurs are finding ways to deal with the challenges of the minimum wage hike
  4. Win $2,500 in Furniture from Industry West
    Bring out your inner creativity
  5. A Beer-Lover’s Special (and Very Limited) Beer Alternative
    Cidre Brut, a Génépi-infused cider created by the US Grant Hotel, is a one-of-a-kind taste experience
  6. First Look: Crack Shack Encinitas
    The fast-casual chicken joint opens its first North County location
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Promotions

Go Ahead... Ask McMillin!

At McMillin Realty, we are encouraging you to bring us your real estate questions. We will answer these questions….. for free.

Not Your Grandma's Orthotics

New year, new – shoe? Staying on your feet for long hours at a time just got a whole lot more comfortable with Wiivv’s BASE custom insoles
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module
Edit Module

Connect With Us:

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Sponsored

Win $2,500 in Furniture from Industry West

Bring out your inner creativity

Enter a Drawing You Could Actually Win

There are more than 1,700 prizes in the Dream House Raffle
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags