Taking Flight: One Nurse’s Unusual Passion

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By Jennifer Larson, contributor

March 16, 2012 - Some people use flying as a metaphor for going above and beyond, for feeling great, for living life to its fullest.

Jeanne Gartner, RN, on the other hand, literally flies.

Gartner is a veteran registered nurse with 29 years of nursing experience. She works for the Pediatric Hematology Oncology Clinic of the N.C. Cancer Hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C. She cares for the young patients who arrive for their first visit after receiving a diagnosis and throughout their courses of treatment. And she revels in seeing them, healthy and thriving, return for follow-up visits.

She is also a FAA-certified hot air balloon pilot who has been flying hot air balloons for 14 years.

She first got bitten by the ballooning bug in 1988 during a stint as a travel nurse in New Mexico. She attended a large balloon festival and participated as a crew member.

“I looked up into that big sky of balloons, and I said, ‘I want to do that,’” Gartner said. “I wasn’t content to just stand and look at balloons from the sideline.”

For the next 10 years, Gartner worked regularly as a travel nurse and dreamed of learning to fly. Finally, she registered for flying lessons. She did “ground school” in the Pittsburgh area, where she grew up, and then she took lessons in El Paso, Texas, and Las Cruces, N.M. She went through the testing process with the Federal Aviation Administration and got her private license in February of 1999. Then during a break from her job as a cruise ship nurse, she got her commercial license in December of that same year. 

“My family thought I was crazy,” she said, laughing. But soon enough, they appreciated her enthusiasm and dedication to her new hobby and began asking for rides.

Since getting her license, Gartner has attended festivals and rallies all over the United States and Canada. She’s raced other balloonists and had more than a few memorable moments along the way. She loves the peaceful feeling she gets early in the morning, when the air is calm and the sun is just rising. And it’s exciting when the wind picks up and makes landing a bigger challenge.

“It’s very magical,” she said.

NurseZone Nursing Profile
Jeanne Gartner, RN, has a passion for nursing and for her other vocation as a professional hot air balloon pilot.

She’s also had a chance to teach and share her passion with others.

As a commercial pilot, Gartner has the ability to test other commercial pilots who need to renew their licenses, and she can teach others to fly. She has organized some teaching flights, where she has done training sessions with members of her crew who were interested in learning to fly and needed to learn under a trained pilot.

And when she gives rides to eager passengers, she thoroughly enjoys giving them a taste of the exhilarating feeling of soaring over the land.

In Texas, Gartner even got the chance to take a few patients flying. One of her favorite memories is taking a16-year-old patient, his sister, and his sister’s friend on a flight.

“We just had so much fun,” she remembered. “I had my crew take pictures of them, and I made them a little photo album. We had such a good time with that. So I feel good that I got to share that.”

She added, “It’s fun to make kids happy.”

During the course of her ballooning career, Gartner has owned or shared ownership of three hot air balloons. All of her balloons have involved “Bean” in their names somehow, because her nickname is Bean. She bought her first balloon, a used multicolored balloon, not long after getting her license and named it Holy Frijole.

“She was old and tired, poor thing,” Gartner said, noting that balloons seem to have their own personalities. “But it was a great balloon to learn on because it was porous and it liked to land, and you had to concentrate to keep it in the air.”

Eventually she upgraded to a larger, rainbow-colored balloon that she named Cool Beans!. It was about eight stories tall, or 105,000 cubic feet. Because it was bigger than her first balloon, she was able to take more riders; Cool Beans! could accommodate a pilot and three riders, compared with Holy Frijole’s limit of a pilot and one or two riders, depending on the season. She flew that balloon for five years.

“When my first Cool Beans! died, I wrote a eulogy for that balloon,” she said. “She was a wonderful balloon. She loved to fly.”

So about five years ago, Gartner and a friend bought a third balloon together. They had a manufacturer produce the balloon from Gartner’s design and color scheme, and they named it Cool Beans!! (note the extra exclamation point). The newer balloon is about the same size as its original namesake.

When Gartner moved to North Carolina about a year and a half ago, her friend kept the balloon at his home in New Mexico. So, these days, Gartner is not flying as much as she once did, but she’s happily busy with her nursing job in North Carolina.

But she’s already got plans for early October. That’s when she’ll head to New Mexico again to fly her own balloon in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta—the largest hot air balloon race in the world.

“I will always maintain some connection to ballooning,” she said. “It’s not something you just walk away from that easily.”

© 2012. AMN Healthcare, Inc. All Rights Reserved.