Adventures on the Wind: Balloonist Bob Kinsinger

By Amy Nilson September 15, 2010 17:44

Bob Kinsinger always intended to be a world traveler. It’s a passion he has nurtured his whole life.

Now 87, the retired university and foundation administrator has crisscrossed the globe dozens of times – very often floating slowly beneath a colorful hot air balloon in hundreds of trips to more than 30 countries. He has soared over Arctic ice fields and a live volcano in the tropics, all from a vantage point like no other.

“It’s like floating on a magic carpet,” the Twain Harte man says. “It’s such an exhilarating experience that you can’t get any other way. You go low and slow, so you see so much more wildlife and scenery.”

Even better, he nearly always has great interactions with people upon landing. Typically, a partner in a chase car follows below, and often must ask the landowner for permission to pick up the balloon. The landowner gets a bottle of champagne as a courtesy.

“That goes back to the first balloonists in France,” Kinsinger says. “When they flew over the villages and farms, no one had ever seen such a thing. People thought they were demons. So when they landed, the balloonists had to do something to quickly make friends.”

Champagne worked then, he says, and it works today.

“It’s a great way to meet locals,” he says. “People are always so excited to see you, and so curious to see the balloon up close.”

A whimsical beginning

Curiosity hooked Kinsinger into the sport a half-century ago, after a Popular Mechanics article piqued his interest. He was in his mid-30s, busy working and raising three children with wife Bobbie.

“I knew I didn’t have time to get involved in anything else, but I was just curious to see one of these things work,” he says. “I told myself I wouldn’t do more than just take a look.”

He sent off a letter, asking where he could see a balloon up close. That led to an invitation to visit some avid balloonists a few hours’ drive from his home in Michigan. Then came his first short ride, his first longer excursion, his first chance to pilot, and in time, his first balloon.

“I just kept getting more drawn in,” he grins. “My wife and I would find ourselves on a picnic or out somewhere, and we would always say ‘What a perfect day … for ballooning.’ ”

Once they surrendered to the hobby, ballooning opened a new world of travel and adventure that’s spanned 50 years. After becoming active with ballooning, the Kinsingers helped host the World Hot Air Balloon Championship in their community.

That ambitious project introduced Kinsinger to balloonists from all over the world. From then on, he and Bobbie could pretty much pick and choose among invitations to join in ballooning events and excursions to nearly every continent, from Burma, Bhutan and Sri Lanka to Kazakhstan, Kenya and Costa Rica.

“People still call all the time,” he says. “They say, ‘Just come. If you can get here, we’ll take care of everything else.’ ”

Ask about memorable moments, and he has a ready list:

“Flying over the Great Wall of China, a trip outside Leningrad flying over the Czar’s summer palace near Leningrad, and flying over Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. No one had ever done that before.”

He recalls that trip in vivid detail some 45 years later: floating slowly over the mouth of the bubbling volcano while growing increasingly worried about running out of fuel.

“When we finally landed, pygmies came out of the forest holding spears. They couldn’t speak English, of course, but they were very friendly, very curious,” he recalls. “They stayed with us for eight hours while our chase car caught up.”

First time around

World travel had been a part of Kinsinger’s life since childhood. Growing up in Southern California, he spent a lot of time at the university libraries where his mother worked. His dreams of joining the Foreign Service had him aiming high as a young scholar at Stanford University. World War II interrupted his freshman year, and he served three years in sea rescue with the Navy before returning to Stanford.

College diploma in hand, he set out on his first trip around the globe. With a bicycle and the cheapest steerage ticket available, he landed on the coast of France and rode a bicycle along the American invasion route. It was 1948, and he was among the first American civilians to come back through. In Paris, he was quickly hired as one of many young  “go-fers” working for American diplomats at the United Nations. He was assigned to the office of Eleanor Roosevelt, then chief delegate to the UN General Assembly.

“I didn’t really get to know her, but it was a thrill,” he recalls.

After a year, he set out for more adventure – by car and boat to Africa, by train, camel and horseback through the Middle East, and by ship again to Hong Kong where he finally found his passage back home. He took a shipboard job feeding and cleaning up after a load of elephants, lions, tigers and other animals on their way to a Los Angeles zoo.

On to education

When Kinsinger made it back to the Bay Area, he spent a few years trying different ventures – teaching, running a Red Cross blood bank, going in with some college friends on an Idaho golf course and housing development. He met his wife, Bobbie, on a ski slope there, and eventually, as they started a family, decided on a career in education. That meant going back to school, first to Stanford for a master’s degree, then to Columbia University in New York for a doctorate.

He taught and worked in New York universities, then got an intriguing job offer – to be an administrator for the Kellogg Foundation, one of the world’s largest charitable foundations, today valued at nearly $8 billion. Kellogg had a special focus on education, and Kinsinger was again traveling the globe to visit grantees on nearly every continent.

His family moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, the foundation’s headquarters, and he spent the next 17 years working on such sweeping projects as development of the nation’s community college system.

Back to Twain Harte

He and Bobbie, however, always planned to return to California and did so in 1983 – specifically, to Twain Harte, where his parents had built a retirement home on 460 forested acres. Two of their children, William and Candace, still live nearby with their families, while daughter Lisa is now in Grand Rapids.

Bobbie died in 1998 after a long struggle with cancer. Bob has continued his many activities and interests, including managing the family timberland and working with Allied Health in developing education for health technicians.

Locally, he helped found Sierra Nonprofit Services, is a trustee for Sierra Repertory Theatre, and is a volunteer business counselor with SCORE. His most recent project is hosting college forestry students at his Twain Harte property and letting them get hands-on experience with forest management practices.

He also has continued ballooning, although several years ago officially gave up his pilot’s license. He was delighted to have his grandson, Justin, pick up his interest a few years ago, earn his pilot’s license and take over the Kinsinger family balloon.

Justin, now 27, works at Gap Inc.’s corporate offices in San Francisco, and gets the balloon up as often as he can.

“I started flying mostly for my grandfather, to continue his legacy,” Justin says. “But now, it’s my passion too. There’s this romance and adventure about it.”

Bob joins him often, but now as a passenger.

“I’m so wedded to it, I still go up all the time,” he says. “I’m not working the winds – that’s Justin’s job now – but floating on the winds is something that gets in your blood, and you can’t do it any other way.”

Copyright © 2010, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Amy Nilson September 15, 2010 17:44
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