Uncharted, Unknown, Unbound

It’s a different world up here. Buoyed by his balloon, Jacob Little negotiates the limits of a radiant Phoenix sky

Episode 6: Jacob Little

A Before We Could Drink Series

“I was having a conversation with Jay, my editor. We were discussing Arizona and what it’s known for. He told me about the prevalence of their air balloon culture – I’d never heard about it before, so my curiosity was piqued.

“Following a chance encounter at a coffee shop, I was put in touch with Jacob’s company. I asked if they had any pilots who were 21 or under. They passed my contact details on, and he responded about half an hour later.

“It was fascinating to learn about this topic. Jacob’s passion is infectious, and I just love how he hasn’t let anything stand in the way of his dreams.”

– Leah Judson, Before We Could Drink creator

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Gliding on the breeze, wicker baskets float across Arizona’s tawny vistas. Suspended by hefty, bloated tarpaulin, passengers cluster in modestly sized gondolas, peering wide-eyed at a miniature world below.

Aircraft hover expectantly, bobbing and rising as thunderous flames maintain a steady elevation. All in all, it’s a curiously arresting sight – a breadth of inflatables, dotted and peppered across one of the country’s most remarkable landscapes. Above the clouds, something delicate occupies the air.

This is the canvas of Rainbow Ryders: America’s largest hot-air balloon company. Since 1983, the outfit has provided private and commercial flights to over half a million Southwest residents. A fleet of 40 balloons come navigated by 24 FAA-approved professionals. Though just 21, Jacob Little is one such authority.

Parked in a compact cockpit, he squeezes a nearby handle. It’s a mechanism that controls the distribution of propane, which in turn determines the altitude of his craft. The wind will drag the balloon in various directions, but trajectory is entirely contingent upon height – manipulated via the pre-programmed temperature of the blaze.

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“This is what I love. I’m never going to stop.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“This is what I love. I’m never going to stop.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“On the ground, we may be going south. Go a thousand feet into the air and we might be pulled north-west. I change the distribution of heat to navigate,” Jacob explains.

Piloting these vessels is a niche profession, but when all you’ve ever known is aviation, it’s second nature.

“I grew up in ballooning. My dad’s a professional pilot – he got his license two years before I was born. I went to my first event when I was a month old, and stood my first balloon up at 12. I’ve always been interested because I’ve always been involved.”

More than mere pastime, Jacob’s passions are a longstanding reflection of a family trade. These inclinations have recently borne fruit – last year he attained a degree in aviation management from Arizona State University.

“It’s a sport, and for a lot of people, a hobby. But for me, it’s so much more. I’ve worked hard to carve my own path. I just happen to be lucky enough to make money doing it.”

“What an experience.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Rather than operate as a means of transportation, hot-air ballooning functions primarily as tourist activity, or sporting venture. Those boarding are keen to experience a peaceful, open-air suspension, sailing beyond the limits. The effect is a soothing reprieve from the chaos of earthbound events.

“It’s a bucket list item for a lot of people. The purpose of these rides stems from the experience itself, and the enjoyment it brings. Daily, patrons come from far and wide. They’re able to see Phoenix from a completely new perspective.”

The feeling is distinctive, and it stirs. A tranquil drifting sensation puts pilot and passenger at the mercy of the wind, coasting gently through the heavens.

“I love flying this way. It’s not like airplanes, because it’s completely exposed. There’s no aluminum or metal shield protecting you. You’re simply standing in a compartment, perched in this hanging container. You’re moving in the air, but in a sense, you also become part of it.

“There can be periods where I’m not burning anything, for minutes at a time. When it’s cooling down, the altitude lessens, and we get lower. There’s a lot of time spent peacefully floating in those moments, and that’s what I cherish.”

Discussing his connection to hot air ballooning, Jacob outlines its seemingly contradictory charms.

“I think pilots become addicted to this adrenaline rush. Whether it’s alone or with multiple people, you’ve got lives in your hands, and you have to honor that duty.

“There’s an exhilaration, but also a certain serenity. That might sound like a paradox, but I mean it that way. It’s where I’m meant to be. It’s a flood of emotional conflicts, balancing each other out.

“What an experience.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“I’ve had to earn my stripes.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“I’ve had to earn my stripes.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“I was lucky to find what I enjoy so soon in life. Growing within a space you love is really rewarding. In a sense, it’s like an addiction. It just so happens that mine’s a healthy one!”

In aircraft like these, you’re acutely aware of the world’s enormity, but also conscious of its arbitrary routes. You can determine your course to a certain degree, but in the end, Mother Nature takes charge.

“I can manipulate it to a certain extent, but she lays the rules and sets the boundaries,” he jibes.

It may seem like a throwaway remark, but this thought communicates an apt metaphor. Making peace with what you cannot change is integral to progress and growth – as are learning from errors that invariably occur.

“There’s not a person that exists without mistakes. If you let those pitfalls control your future, it’s defining the person you become,” he surmises.

“Some days, I might mess up. But that’s normal. It’s part of the process. You can’t let the hiccups get in the way of what you’re doing. You must have a forward-thinking mentality. Everything you do has to comprise some kind of lesson.

“I say I have instant power, but the burners don’t have any effect on the balloon for about eight seconds. Until then, there’s nothing. Imagine driving a car, slamming the breaks, and then the vehicle doesn’t stop immediately. That’s why you have to look ahead and foresee potential problems. If I have a rough take-off, I still have to land. I can’t just throw my hands up and walk away!”

“Nothing compares.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

A colossal sense of responsibility falls on Jacob’s shoulders. In an industry where reputation means everything, discipline and order are indispensable. Establishing his expertise has been a rocky road, but under pressurized circumstances, he’s flourished.

“There are those who’ve spent significantly more time in this industry than I have. You’ve got to prove yourself, and I think that’s healthy.

“Early on, they wondered if I had the skill set – but that’s just the nature of this game. You either survive or you don’t. You live and die by your standing.”

Epitomizing the key message of this series, Jacob makes peace with the agism that’s accompanied his piloting experiences. Rather than be deterred, his mindset is robust.

“It’s funny. On a daily basis I’ll fly customers who’ll stare at me incredulously. Age and experience are always questioned, but to be fair, I’d probably say the same thing if I was in a similar situation.

“When you see a young person with this much accountability, there are misgivings that are just built-in. The fun lies in proving everyone wrong.”


To learn more about Before We Could Drink and how it got started, click here

“Nothing compares.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR