The Balloon Pilot with many hats

By: Marky Gray
It’s easy to spot our tethered balloon from miles away when it’s in flight, but what you can’t see 377 feet above is one of our many world-class pilots. Every day they entertain guests during high-flying voyages, and some have a unique flair all their own that keep guests entertained on both the ground and in the air.
Enter Maria Fernandez, one of Conner Prairie’s Senior Balloon Pilots! Maria has been with Conner Prairie for over seven years and is known for turning any moment into a fun and memorable one. Originally from Mexico, she moved to Indiana in 2006 with her husband and two kids—one of which, Alejandra, is also a balloon pilot here at Conner Prairie. What originally started out as a search for a summer job, Maria’s path led her to being one of our valued balloon pilots!
 “My favorite thing about piloting the balloon is the freedom and responsibility that comes with it. I love to feel the responsibility of something important like people’s lives. And of course I just love flying and being in the air, I love looking at everything and now that we have IKEA and Top Golf I tell people to take pictures because in the future they’ll be worth millions.”
Of course being a balloon pilot isn’t Maria’s only job. After studying special education at Universidad de las Americas in Mexico City, she persuaded her dream of being a special education teacher. As a special education teacher, Maria is the go-to pilot to properly assist those with special needs during their trip on the balloon.
“Sometimes we get passengers with autism, down syndrome, severe anxiety, or many other disabilities and often times we use terminology that they may not understand. If you say ‘we’re going 377 feet into the air,’ that’s just numbers to them. So for these passengers we use pictures to show how high the balloon goes.”
Aside from being able to assist those with special needs, Maria’s other favorite thing about working at Conner Prairie are the people that she is surrounded by. She smiled, “I feel like I get along with everyone and I like to cheer everyone up. Life is beautiful, why be sad or angry? I like to be happy all the time.”
One way that Maria lifts spirits is by the many random and funny hats she often wears.
“I have a foam corn hat, a huge sombrero, and even a crown and sash that I made out of old balloon fabric that I wear during my birthday. My daughter Alejandra says I’m like a mascot and a balloon pilot at the same time.”
The next time you near Commons Café or the balloon itself, be on the lookout for Maria. You might just see her wearing a nice, shiny crown to celebrate her birthday July 31st!