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Above It All: Hot Air Ballooning

Those with No Particular Place to Go, Ballooning is the Only Way to Travel
Terrence Fagan
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

You arrive before daybreak, jacket pulled tight against the chill of an early desert morning. The dawning light reveals what looks like a giant quilt laid out on the dusty ground, acres of shimmering nylon and polyester fabric in vibrant reds, yellows, greens and blues. You're surrounded by a sound like a hundred lawn mowers as large fans begin filling the fabric pouches with air. Slowly, with the help of eight-foot-long blasts of flame from scores of burners, shapes rise from the desert floor, bulbous, awkward shapes, staggering upright until they're towering 70 feet high and straining at their tethers. You climb into a wicker basket, the pilot looses another blast of flame, and the balloon gently, almost imperceptibly, rises to meet the heavens.

For those fortunate enough to fly at the Kodak Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, it's an experience long remembered. But rather than the sensation of flying, you feel as if you are standing in place on your wicker platform and the earth is falling away from you. There is little sense of movement; the land scrolls by like scenery on an old movie set. You can hold a lighter and the flame will barely flicker. There is no wind, because you are riding the wind. Except for the sounds of the burner, all is quiet. Peaceful. As you look around you see a sky filled with hundreds of balloons in dozens of colors, giant Christmas ornaments spilled onto a sky-blue carpet.

In every state in America and dozens of countries around the world, millions of people come to watch hot air balloons take to the skies each year at events ranging from small, 10-balloon gatherings to Albuquerque's launching of a 900-balloon armada each October. About 6,000 hot air balloonists in the United States and abroad put hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into what is, basically, a basket, a burner and a bag of hot air.

So what is it about ballooning? It's hardly a practical form of transportation. If you're trying to get anywhere, jets, trains, cars--even bicycles--are faster and more reliable. Even from the first balloon flight in 1783, there were those who considered them outmoded. "We now know a method of mounting into the air [balloons]," Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, was quoted in Boswell's Life of Dr. Johnson, "and, I think, are not likely to know more. The vehicles can serve no use till we can guide them; and they can gratify no curiosity till we mount with them to greater heights than we can reach without..."

But Dr. Johnson may have missed the point. For many balloonists and millions of fans, the balloon's apparent uselessness is its greatest charm. In this high-tech, high-speed age, a balloon is decidedly retro. It slows life down. Destination? Wherever. Speed? About six miles per hour. Arrival time? Depends on the winds.

Many balloonists who began as small-plane pilots left them for balloons. Planes are too loud, they'd say, or too enclosed, too expensive, too complicated. A balloon is none of those things. For Albuquerque banker and 1996 Fiesta board of directors treasurer John R. Sena, 58, ballooning offers many gifts. "It's thrilling, it's peaceful, it's different," he says. "There's a sense of serenity, a sense of grace. On the ground, hot air balloons are the most unwieldy critters you wanna deal with. But get 'em into the air, and it transcends" the everyday world.

When 52-year-old pilot Jim Birk of Air Ventures Inc. in Defiance, Ohio, isn't flying corporate balloons for a Midwest supermarket chain, he's flying for the thrill of competition. "It's a sport that people can remain active in, and be a top world competitor, into their 50s," he says. "Having played college baseball and basketball way back when, once you get to the magic age when your body just can't take the hammering anymore, you have to pick another sport. For the most part, ballooning is friendly competition. Tough competition, because what we do happens 2,000 feet above the ground, and you can't afford to make a series of errors."

"There's a bit of barnstorming to it," says Bruce W. Hale, 47, an Albuquerque construction contractor and 1996 Fiesta board president. "While it's a very safe sport--there are a lot of precautions taken with regard to safety, the weather being a key factor--you only have control over up and down. So where you go is up to the wind."

It's in the choice of which wind currents to take at what height and in which direction, that flying a balloon becomes an art.

The names and designs of their balloons reflect the many reasons that balloonists take up the sport. "I guess you could probably say that most of the people are flying their last idea or their worst nightmare or a dream, or, in many cases, their egos, too," says Birk. While ballooning has attracted millionaires such as the late Malcolm Forbes, whose specially shaped balloons are still being flown, and Richard Branson, the music and airline executive who is trying to become the first balloon pilot to circle the world nonstop, it also attracts thousands of people of more limited means. "The people that are in the sport are as varied as the number and types and styles of balloons," says Birk.

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