LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Becoming a hot air balloon pilot started out as an expensive date.

"I made the mistake of buying my wife a balloon ride for Christmas," Bill Smith said. "I thought ballooning's kind of neat. That'd be a fun retirement job."

Smith, a retired Air Force Veteran who worked around planes for many years, became a hot air balloon pilot about 15 years ago.

"The first balloon ride cost me $300, the second cost me about $30,000," he joked.

Smith lives in Simpsonville and takes people up for rides throughout the year.

"The solitude is amazing," he said. "It's totally quiet, and then you hear a train whistle down there. It's really cool."

He wanted a new challenge, though. Five years ago, he started competing in the long jump.

"The rules say you need to fly as far as you can on 40 gallons of propane," Smith said.

Last year, he almost beat the record of 693 miles that was set more than 10 years ago. He was just one mile off.

"I ran out of daylight, the rules say you have to land before sunset, and I just didn't have enough daylight," he said. "I had to land, and I was just about a mile or so short. That really lit the fuse to get busy and figure this thing out."

The key was to lighten the load.

"We've done some calculations, and for every pound of weight you can get off the system, you can go one mile further," Smith said.

He took weight off the basket and himself.

"I went on a diet starting Nov. 1, and I got rid of about 25 pounds of weight. So that was 25 more miles," Smith said. "That's the key to long distance -- to have the lightest system possible."

Also, the higher up you go, the faster you can go. Smith had an oxygen tank with him and used it at 16,500 feet, where it was below zero degrees. While the tank weighs about 10 pounds, it was worth having on board. Without it, he would have stayed flying around 80 miles per hour at a lower altitude. Above 15,000 feet, he could go over 100 miles per hour.

"I reached a top speed of 108 miles an hour," Smith said. "That's the fastest. I always wanted to go faster than 100 miles an hour. And when I did it, I got my camera out, and I took a picture of the GPS to prove to everyone I went 100 mph," Smith smiled.

It took him 8.5 hours to fly from South Dakota to Tompkinsville, Kentucky, for a total of 753 miles.

Smith is unofficially the new record holder. His flight is under review, but officials with The Balloon Federation of America tell WDRB they expect his record to stand.

"I just love being up high and looking out and enjoying the view," he said.

One of the busiest days for hot air balloon pilots is Valentine's Day. Smith says he is all booked up, but SkyCab Balloon Promotions has some openings.

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