Mix one part Chuck Norris, one part The Red Baron and one part P.T. Barnum, stirred, not shaken, and odds are out will pop one Kevin Poeppelman. For more than two decades now Poeppelman has been plying the skies in all sorts of aircraft, having fun and making money all along the way.
The adventure began in 1970 when Poeppelman was running a parachute business in Miami, Florida while attending college there. Along the way he made the acquaintance of Will Thrasher, then a dealer for Semco balloons. Thrasher, it seems, had sold a balloon to a promoter in Jamaica whose plan was to stage parachute jumps out of this balloon to open large sporting events. Enter Chuck Norris (er, Poeppelman)... "He'd (the pilot) take off and we would go up to five or six thousand feet over Montego Bay and I'd do the jump while he tried to land before being carried out to sea. Together we did about ten or twenty of these flag jumps, where I would jump into a stadium trailing the Jamaican flag to open some big soccer game," Poeppelman recalls.
With that as an introduction to ballooning Poeppelman, now back in the states, looked up an instructor and got a balloon pilot's license in 1972. But before getting too serious about this new aeronautical adventure, law school was looming on the horizon. It was during those years that Poeppelman moved to the Washington D.C. area and his Red Baron trait emerged as he soon found himself part owner of, what else, a Flying Circus.
"There are twenty-five of us who own the circus," he says. "We have a 230 acre site in Warrenton, Virginia where we have recreated a 1932 aerodrome and it's stocked with all the old Stearmans, Wacos and other classic airplanes. There's a picnic area and a small museum and every Sunday, May through October, we do a regular airshow on our own site. Today we are the last surviving barnstorming airshow in the country." Though he had flown airplanes since his youth, Poeppelman got involved with the Flying Circus as a balloonists. One of his stunts was to carry a top rider... "Karl Stefan designed a platform," Poeppelman explains, "to allow a person to top ride on a balloon. I have that original platform and it hangs out at the Flying Circus field. For a log time that was part of our act until I got tired of replacing balloons because of the burned out fabric caused by a 200-pound guy riding on top!"
During these years, beginning in 1974, Poeppelman operated his own balloon company, Adventures Aloft, doing the typical commercial promotions and the sometimes not so typical top riding or dropping a hang glider.
In 1979 a different side of Poeppelman emerged when he served as chairman of the BFA's Education Committee. Poeppelman, the Chesapeake Balloon Association and the BFA would organize some of the first real safety seminars in the sport during those years - all of this prior to the Back to Basics concept.
In 1982 Poeppelman moved on to chair the BFA's Accident Prevention committee working with other balloonists to assist the FAA and NTSB in accident investigations.
On another front, Poeppelman and Maureen (Mullen) Lynch took on the task of writing the BFA's first Landowner Relations manual and he would also co-edit the Flight Instructor's Handbook.
Despite all of these activities Poeppelman has always been, at heart, a commercial balloonist. From his first contract in 1976 with National Tire Wholesale to the dozen companies he works with today, Poeppelman has experienced it all.
"For my first years all of my time was spent flying auto races," Poeppelman says. "All we did was travel to races all over the US and Canada with those tire balloons and fly over auto races.
"After touring the country for a few years I kind of liked the idea of staying home once in a while. I was also getting married to a women who loved ballooning but we also wanted to town a home and settle down. The road life is great, especially for single guys who want to travel and see the country, but after a while everyone wants a place to call home." REMAX would be the key to Poeppelman's new direction in ballooning as he took on a regional contract, spread over six states. Today, some 15 years later, Poeppelman continues to represent REMAX among about a dozen other clients. It is a niche Poeppelman likes, doing multiple promotions (more than 458 for REMAX alone) for a small number of clients. Commercial ballooning (70 percent promotions and 30 percent rides) is his primary interest though he does operate a part-time law practice. However, always the showman and entrepreneur (P.T. Barnum) Poeppelman has his eye on a new venture. "I just recently got a 50-ton master's captain's license in boating and we're gearing up to offer not just balloon charters, but also charter dive and fishing trips during the winter months. When you're flying balloon passengers you're already tapping that market (exotic sports travel) and we've found quite a bit of crossover among our passengers who also like to scuba dive. It's an interesting niche that we hope to explore 'cause I've always been interested in boats as well as balloons."
For Poeppelman the future looks bright as he sees no end to his high flying and coming soon, deep diving, promotions. Like many who became involved in ballooning during its infancy he sometimes gets nostalgic about the good old days. "One of the things I miss," he says, "is the stuff Don Piccard used to write in Pilot News (now Skylines). Boy, could he stir up a bees nest of opinions. I really enjoyed that and miss it sometimes." Not to worry Kevin, today Piccard is still stirring things up, only now his venues are Balloon Life and the Internet.
1970-72 performed parachute jumps in Jamaica and Caribbean
1972 - earned balloon license
1974 - opened Adventures Aloft / became part owner of Flying Circus
1976 -landed first national contract - National Tire Wholesale
1979-82 - chairman BFA Education Committee
1982-85 - chairman BFA Accident Prevention Committee
referring to his parachute jumping days leaping out of a Semco balloon...
"I was the one who felt safe up there, I had the parachute!"