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5 Take Advantage of Unique Johnson Flight Academy Opportunity

Ill. Balloon Academy Features 1st All-Female Cadet Crew

Nestled in the heart of central Illinois, Civil Air Patrol’s Johnson Flight Academy prides itself in having provided over 50 years of safe and affordable cadet flight training. The academy has conducted successful aircraft operations for decades through its thriving powered and glider sections, but it also boasts a unique future -- the only hot air balloon academy in all of CAP.

The academy has hosted balloon operations since 1975, exposing dozens of cadets to a distinctive aviation niche. This year, for the first time in the academy’s history, the student balloon crew consisted entirely of female cadets:

  • Cadet Col. Jodie Gawthrop, Lake in the Hills Composite Squadron, Illinois Wing
  • Cadet Chief Master Sgt. Raegan Buzzard, Mount Airy Composite Squadron, Maryland Wing
  • Cadet Chief Master Sgt. Jacqueline Harding, Monroe County Composite Squadron, Indiana Wing
  • Cadet Chief Master Sgt. Taylor Nordman, Louisville Composite Squadron, Kentucky Wing
  • Cadet Staff Sgt. Crystal Giron, Pines-Miramar Composite Squadron, Florida Wing

Spanning three CAP regions, the five traveled to the academy site in Mattoon for 10 days of immersive training unlike any other available to cadets.

Each day was physically and academically demanding, as the cadets rose well before sunrise to take advantage of the calm conditions necessary for quality balloon flight. Tethered flights served as a chance to become proficient in balloon system setup and control, and serene free flights over the patchwork fields of Illinois lent their sense of adventure and breathtaking views.

Much like airplanes and gliders, balloons attract a vibrant community of pilots, crew members and enthusiasts alike to achieve flight. Second Lt. Rachael Gallant of the Indiana Wing’s Bakalar Composite Squadron participated in the academy’s balloon activity as a cadet student in 2006. She now returns as a licensed balloon pilot and leads the course along with her father, 1st Lt. Michael Gallant, aerospace education officer for the Bakalar squadron.


“I fell in love with the people, the sport and the magic of seeing the world from a different point of view. I had to be a part of it,” she said. Gallant and her dedicated staff shared their passion for the art and instilled the spirit of ballooning within each of their students.

The course was academically demanding as well. Daily in-depth ground school lessons went above and beyond on aerospace topics, exploring paramount ballooning concepts such as navigation, weather theory and even landowner relations. Ballooning burgeons on community engagement, and students are instructed on the finer points of interacting with the general public amidst their highly visible aircraft.

In many cases, lessons learned beyond the grips of gravity can be applied to cadets’ everyday lives back on solid ground. “I would say the most important lesson is to go with the flow,” Gallant said.

Many aviators compare ballooning to a team sport. “I was worried when three cadets decline their slots just days before the start of the academy, since ballooning is a physically intensive activity” said Maj. Robert Bowden, activity director for the flight academy.

“I could not have been more wrong,” he said. “These five cadets surpassed all expectations, bonded together as a team and had an amazing experience, with all five earning their pre-solo wings.”

Johnson graduates continue to prove the sky is no limit for CAP’s cadets.