AS a youngster Al Nels dreamed about flying on a magic carpet. As a college student he discovered the next best thing: hot-air ballooning. Now he's the reigning world champion in his sport - and still as excited about flying as he was the first time he went up in 1974. ``I heard about some people who were in town for a balloon race, so I volunteered for their ground crew,'' he recalls. ``After the race when they asked me if I wanted a ride, I jumped right in the basket before they had a chance to take back the invitation!
``I got hooked immediately. It was like my childhood dreams. I started flight training right away, and within a month I had my pilot's license,'' he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Beavercreek, Ohio.
By 1978, Nels was one of the 100 qualifiers for the national championships, finishing 31st. The next year he was ninth, signaling a steady climb until he won back-to-back titles in 1984 and '85. His first shot at the biennial world championships resulted in a 13th-place finish, but in 1987 in Stubenberg am See, Austria, he won it all.
In August he will try for a third United States championship in Baton Rouge, La. (time and money constraints have kept him out of national competition since winning those back-to-back crowns in '84 and '85). Then in November in Saga, Japan, he will seek to become the second person to win two world titles, a feat previously accomplished by fellow American Paul Woessner in 1979 and '81.
Nels has been keeping sharp this spring flying in Europe, including a recent trip to the Soviet Union, where he was one of three Americans invited to participate in that country's first-ever hot-air balloon competition. Some 30 balloons from 17 nations took part in the five-day event in Vilnius, which was basically an exhibition rather than a serious competition, though it attracted as many as 200,000 spectators.
Nels says a balloon champion must have a variety of skills.
``You have to be very perceptive of ... those small changes in the wind,'' he said. ``I do have an engineering degree, and the technical background has been very much to my advantage. It gives me a better understanding of everything from the weather to how the balloon system works.
``Another important thing is concentration. And you have to have the ability to do a lot of planning - to strategize each task. At the world championships, before I went to bed I tried to think what the conditions would be the following morning. I put myself in the place of the organizers, and tried to predict what they'd want us to do. Then I got up early, looked at the weather, and checked over my equipment. I made sure I had prepared to the best of my ability.
``You also have to have a strong commitment to win. And you have to find the right people for your ground crew. You have to make sure they believe in you, and you have to believe in them.''
Nels's ability to inspire confidence was evident as he prepared for the 1987 world championships.
``A local TV crew was interviewing me, and they didn't understand how I could be so confident,'' he says. ``They said, `But you've never won a world's. You've never flown in Austria. ... What makes you think you can win?'
``These guys were strangers, but by the time I explained to them why I was going to win, they paid their own money to go over to cover the event.''
Tom Sheppard of West Bend, Wis., a leading international official, says top balloonists need multiple skills: ``You have to first of all know the winds - have a sense of what changes may take place,'' he says. ``There's a tremendous skill involved in being able to work the lower winds - winds that the average meteorologist or airplaine pilot doesn't even know about.
``A good balloon competitor has to be good at all of these things. He has to be a good pilot, know meteorology; understand the task; and also understand the rules....
``Al has an excellent all-around knowledge and skill. He has a game plan, and he sticks with it. And he practices hard, just like athletes do for the Olympics.''
Nels is sponsored now (by the AEG Corporation, a high-technology company for which he works as a district representative), but he got to the top on his own.
``When I bought my first balloon, I borrowed money,'' he recalls. ``When I needed to get into a more competitive balloon, I saved and scrimped. ... Finally, after I went through enough balloons, I built my own. By the time I got to the point of winning the US championship, it was in a balloon I had built myself.''
Nels, who is married and has three children (the youngest eight months), tries to maintain a balance between competing and spending time with his family.
``It's a strenuous sport both physically and mentally. I've got a lot of good years left in me, and I don't intend to stop as long as I'm doing well. Maybe I'll be the first guy to win it when I'm 75!''