Rainbow Ryders’s hot air balloons have graced the skies of Albuquerque for 40 years, but years before Scott Appelman (UNM ‘81) founded one of the largest hot air ballooning companies in the world, he was a teenage boy ditching class to help a balloon pilot during one of the first Balloon Fiesta events.

The first few days went well, according to Appelman, and he kept his parents from finding out he was skipping class. Things finally went awry at the end of the week when he was able to ride in the balloon.

“On the day I flew, we ended up landing inside the third fence of a nuclear storage facility out at Sandia [National Labs],” Appelman said. “We were surrounded by 18-year-olds with M16s, and the Italian pilot was screaming. I guess I was about 15 years old at that point, and I’m in tears, and then they had to call my mom to come get me.”

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Scott Appelman preparing to pilot a balloon for Academy Plumbing and Heating in the early 1980s.

His mom was upset at the time, though years later she would tell him it had been a good field trip, Appelman recalled. Perhaps surprisingly, the experience did not turn Appelman away from ballooning for good, but he also didn’t intend to make it his career. The plan was to attend the UNM Anderson School of Management at The University of New Mexico, graduate, and continue working at his family’s business — Academy Plumbing and Heating. When he wasn’t in college classes, he was volunteering on his friends’s balloon crews.

“I was kind of helping a friend, hanging out, and doing the balloon thing in between classes,” he said. “I got a really good grassroots training from the ground up, learning about crewing and all the different things that happen on the ground, which makes me feel like I’m a better pilot.”

When he graduated in 1981 with a bachelor’s of Business Administration and a focus on finance and economics, Appelman continued working for his family’s company as he’d always planned, but after two years he realized it was time to strike out on his own. He decided to launch a hot air balloon and corporate promotions business.

“Basically, I started Rainbow Ryders by flying a banner balloon for Academy Plumbing at the Balloon Fiesta,” Appelman said.

Scott Appelman inflating a hot air balloon in the early days of Rainbow Ryders.

In the early days of Rainbow Ryders, Appelman faced skepticism about how he would build a successful business around hot air balloons. People told him if he wanted to make $1 million with hot air balloons, he would need to start with $2 million, he said. Business and finance skills, savvy investments and bold business choices helped Appelman develop the company he runs today, which operates in Albuquerque, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Colorado Springs, flies 47 balloons, and helps approximately 45,000 people a year take to the skies in gondolas. Appelman even helped initiate some of the most popular events at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta during his time on the organization’s board of directors in the 1980s and early 90s, including the Balloon Glow and Special Shapes Rodeo.

Appelman described the experience of being in a hot air balloon as unlike anything else in the world, like a “magic carpet ride,” and he has continued to pilot rides as the company has grown.

 Even with a business model as whimsical as hot air balloon rides and corporate balloons, one of the things he finds most interesting about running Rainbow Ryders is the numbers. Finances, taxes and investments are all some of what he most enjoys about the business. Now celebrating his company’s 40th year, Appelman admitted he never could’ve imagined how it has grown.

“This all evolved by having a great group of people around me, seeing opportunities, but frankly, having a formal education in business allowed me to explore resources and aspects of items to see where possible opportunities were.”

Among the opportunities Appelman saw was an expansion into Phoenix in the midst of the recession. The choice, which he admits seemed a little wild at the time, paid off when other companies in the city closed their doors. It's now Rainbow Ryders’s largest market, with its often-predictable weather and large tourism industry.

One of the challenges in growing the company is finding qualified pilots. Rainbow Ryders developed its own pilot training program to help meet its needs and requires pilots to obtain 500 flying hours, pass drug and alcohol testing, and carry a second-class airman medical certificate.

“We want to keep leading the industry, setting a good example, representing Albuquerque and making sure we’re doing everything we can,” he said.

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A Rainbow Ryders hot air balloon ascends into the skies of Albuquerque.

Appelman’s company recently took that representation one step further, and at least a thousand feet higher, with the sponsorship of a corporate hot air balloon, named Cherry On Top, for UNM. It’s his way of remembering where he came from and giving back to the community, two lessons instilled in him by his parents.

“There was a lot that was taught to me in the Anderson School that allowed me to go forward and enjoy this level of success,” he said. “We’re proud to help sponsor this balloon and it’s the right thing for us to be doing for the community, for The University of New Mexico and for Rainbow Ryders.”

Even after having achieved so much in business and giving back to his alma mater, Appelman has no plans to step back from his career which sometimes doesn’t feel like a job at all.

“People say, “Well, are you going to retire?” What am I going to retire to? To go fly a balloon for fun?”