In contrast, Aerophile's main competitor, the Great American Balloon Co., which flies a tethered craft at Niagara Falls, pays pilots $21,000 to $52,000 a year.
"It's not like they need a college degree," said Shaun Asbury, the general manager of Great American Balloon.
Irvine officials said they didn't seek competitive bids because Aerophile made their balloon and might void the one-year warranty if the craft isn't maintained and operated to company standards.
Tethered balloons trace their roots to the 1800s, when gas-filled airships on leashes were used for military observation and as tourist attractions in such cities as Paris, Budapest, Rome and Chicago.
In modern times, outfitted with gondolas that can carry 30 passengers, the balloons have enjoyed a global renaissance. But only a few hover over the U.S. -- at Niagara Falls, the Philadelphia Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
Most make a profit. Philadelphia's helium-filled behemoth charges half as much per ticket as the Great Park plans to but makes money by letting a corporate sponsor put a logo on the craft. In San Diego, a private balloon company pays all costs and gives a cut of ticket revenue to the Wild Animal Park.
But some tethered balloons have gone bust. The Niagara Falls airship originally flew over Las Vegas, but left town because of poor attendance.
And a Baltimore balloon closed in 2005 after a mechanical snafu stranded 16 passengers in the air for two hours, according to the Baltimore Sun. The Baltimore ship now soars over an Asian resort.
Liability insurance for tethered balloons can be steep. The Great Park is paying $110,000 a year for its policy.
The Philadelphia Zoo paid even more -- $150,000 -- but then found a broker specializing in high-risk policies who eliminated the fee by rolling balloon coverage into the zoo's overall insurance package.
Burgess acknowledged that the balloon might stay in the red beyond its inaugural year. However, that doesn't mean it's a balloondoggle, she said.
Great Park officials hope their airship -- which is set to fly 24 hours a week, Thursdays through Sundays -- will eventually make money.
But they say it's more important to follow the vision of park designer Smith, who floated the balloon concept as one of the site's signature elements.
Not included in any budget is how much publicity balloons can generate, said Philadelphia Zoo spokeswoman Gretchen Toner. "Ours has become a city icon," she said. "People have even proposed on it."
Officials have similar aspirations for the Great Park balloon, which will be visible for miles as a symbol of the military base's future makeover.
But turning a profit? That's a different matter.
"If you could make money on parks," Burgess said, "the private sector would be building them."
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Up in the air
Starting Saturday, visitors to Irvine's Great Park will be able to rise 500 feet aboard a tethered helium balloon. The ride will operate four days a week and offer free rides until January.
Some costs associated with the balloon's operation:
* $380,000 a year for two balloon pilots, a hostess and maintenance.
*$370,000 a year to staff the visitor center with three full-time employees and a supervisor.
*$300,000 to buy a 50-by-50- foot tent intended to simulate the appearance of an aircraft hangar. An additional $75,000 a year will be spent to clean the tent.
*$100,000 a year for a balloon replacement fund. The lifespan of a balloon is five years, so money will be set aside every year for a new one.
*$94,000 a year for portable restrooms.
*$52,000 annually for security between 1 and 5 a.m.
*$30,000 a year for trash removal.
Source: Orange County Great Park, Irvine, Aerophile