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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

(continued from page 3)

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.

Yet for all of these people, a balloon is something else as well: the realization of one of mankind's earliest dreams--to fly.

There is evidence suggesting that the Chinese experimented with manned balloon flight more than 3,000 years ago. In Peru, a piece of 2,000-year-old Nazca Indian pottery carries the unmistakable design of a balloon. (In 1975, scientists built a balloon based on the design, using only materials that were available 2,000 years ago. The balloon flew, safely carrying two men.) But it wasn't until 1783 that manned flight became a documented reality.

That year, French paper makers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier, intrigued by the pieces of paper floating up their factory's chimney, started experimenting. The brothers tested increasingly larger paper and then fabric bags, filling them with smoke (which they thought was the lifting agent, not hot air) and watching them float. That June, in front of King Louis XVI and his court, they released a fabric balloon carrying farm animals in a basket. Encouraged by its success, they created a much larger balloon of blue silk, emblazoned with large cameos of the king and his queen, Marie Antoinette. On Nov. 21, 1783, the royal couple watched with a crowd reported at 440,000 (a number equal to the entire population of Paris at the time) as a pair of French noblemen lifted off from a Paris courtyard in the Montgolfier balloon, landing safely in a farmer's field seven miles away. Ten days later, another Frenchman, J.A.C. Charles, made the first successful flight in a balloon filled with hydrogen. Mankind had learned to fly.

But the drawbacks of eighteenth-century hot air technology soon became apparent. For flights of more than a few minutes, balloonists had to keep a fire in the basket, stoking it with damp straw and sheep's wool. This not only created a foul-smelling and smoky blaze (the smoke helped seal the fabric), but it posed a considerable fire hazard. Gas balloons, usually filled with hydrogen, were cleaner, safer and could carry more cargo with a smaller balloon. They became the airships of choice for the next 160 years. They were used for science experiments and county fair amusement, as well as in military aerial reconnaissance during the U.S. Civil War and on the battlefields of Europe.

The Wright brothers' historic 1903 biplane flight, the 1937 crash of the zeppelin Hindenberg and the Second World War crippled the commercial potential of balloons. Lighter-than-air craft were relegated to the scientists and the military until the late 1960s, when ballooning pioneers such as Ed Yost, Don Piccard, Tracy Barnes and Don Cameron applied newly created technologies to the centuries-old sport, such as improved envelope fabrics and coatings and safer, more reliable burner systems. Portable propane tanks and inexpensive fuel, combined with active promoting by Piccard and others, made hot air ballooning an appealing alternative to gas.

Jim Mount, the 60-year-old owner of Looking Up Advertising Inc. in North Plainfield, New Jersey, recalls the early days. The first balloon he ever saw was when he was driving home from work one day in the 1960s: "Here came this drab grayish military balloon; I was driving a'58 Metropolitan. [The pilot] was pretty low and he was talking to people in a yard having a Saturday afternoon barbecue, and I drove into a culvert watching him. And he looked down at me and said, 'Son, you'd better be flying a balloon rather than driving a car, because you're not doing that too well.' " Mount has been a pilot for more than 20 years.

Tom Rush, chief pilot of Hot Air Balloons International of Cranford, New Jersey, began his aerial career in the 1970s by skydiving, and then soaring in gliders, but didn't find his niche until his first balloon flight in 1980. The pilot that day was Jack Grinton, a pioneering balloonist of the 1960s who owned the Air Pirate Ballooning Academy in Bedminster, New Jersey. "I gave him a call and said I'd like to go for a balloon flight," Rush recalls. "I really didn't know anything about it. And he said, 'Well, would you mind being arrested?' And I cupped the phone and I looked at my friend and said, 'This is the guy I think we want to go ballooning with.' " The day before, Grinton had inadvertently landed his balloon on the New Jersey estate of Jordan's King Hussein. "Jack landed," Rush continues, "and Hussein's guards came out with UZIs, and they all had Levis and cowboy boots on--you know, the typical Americana--and they surrounded him." When the guards concluded there was no threat, they allowed Grinton's chase crew (the people on the ground who follow the balloon) onto the property to retrieve the balloon--and the balloonist.

Rush flew with Grinton that day, and he was hooked. "So I asked [Grinton] how to learn and get a balloon, and he offered to barter instruction for ballooning help." Rush became a pilot a few years later, and became a full-time balloonist in the late 1980s. He flies corporate balloons in Hunterdon County (New Jersey) horse country from the property of The Ryland Inn in Whitehouse. With chef Craig Shelton, formerly of Manhattan's Bouley, the inn is rated one of the best in New Jersey, and it is very cigar friendly--Carlos Fuente Jr. was guest of honor at a dinner in March. The sport itself is cigar friendly as well. Sena, Hale and other Fiesta board members are cigar smokers, as is Jim Birk. It makes sense. Ballooning is about relaxation, and a flight typically lasts as long as a double corona. When on the ground, though, be sure to keep lit cigars away from the envelope; cigar ash burns a quick hole in coated fabrics.

For Albuquerque balloonist Beth Wright-Smith, 41, a future in aviation was practically predestined. Orville and Wilbur Wright, the fathers of modern aviation, are her great-great-great-granduncles, and her father, Terry Wright, was one of the first balloon pilots in the United States, setting flight records with balloonist Tracy Barnes and testing and designing balloons from the '60s to the '80s. "And he's been flying planes even longer than balloons," Wright-Smith notes during an in-flight interview, 1,500 feet over the Albuquerque suburbs. "It's in the blood, I guess." She took her first flight in 1973, has been a pilot since 1978, and has logged more than 2,000 hours of flying and instructed hundreds of balloon pilots in the past 20 years. A former teacher, she is now co-owner of World Balloon, an Albuquerque-based ballooning company.

For those without five generations of aviation in their blood, there's another way to discover if ballooning is for you: find a balloonist. Balloonists operate in every state in the United States; they're listed in the Yellow Pages under "Balloons." Prices for flights vary, but at most balloon festivals, $175 to $200 per person for a one-hour flight is standard. Balloon flights are also available as part of vacation packages, from the Napa Valley to the Bordeaux region to photo safaris over the Serengeti.

There's a saying that your first flight is free and your second costs $20,000. If a flight turns you into a "balloonatic," as those in the sport occasionally call themselves, the next step is to seek instruction. Pilots will sometimes waive their fee, if your interest is genuine, in exchange for help with the balloon. Ballooning schools are also available, such as the one at World Balloon. "We've got two things going for us," says Wright-Smith, "a good reputation and the weather. We can instruct all year round, and we can get [students] done in a minimum amount of time." The course, including written tests and flight training, costs around $3,000 to obtain a private license. Requirements and costs for a commercial balloonist license are higher.

The balloon (or aerostat, to be technical) is a relatively simple affair. You start with the basket, also called the gondola, usually made of wicker and light woods. It holds the pilot, passengers and steel tanks of liquid propane used for the burners. The burners, mounted on struts coming up from the basket, emit a flame about eight feet long, measured in the millions of BTUs. The flame heats the air in the envelope, which is held to the basket by steel load cables, to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The envelope is usually made of specially coated ripstop nylon or polyester, with a skirt at its base and special vents at the side and top for controlled release of hot air for descents. Inside the basket, three instruments are standard: a pyrometer, which determines the temperature at the top of the envelope, an altimeter, measuring height above sea level, and a variometer, which determines rate of descent and climb. A two-way radio is also recommended to keep in touch with the chase crew.

The chase is part of the thrill of ballooning. After a mass launch, chase crews wheel out of the launch area like Manhattan cabbies jumping a traffic light. The challenge is not only to successfully track your balloon, but to arrive at the landing site at the same time as the balloon--not a simple task when following an unsteerable aircraft. For World Balloon employee Frank Perez, the secret to tracking is simple: "Pray to God that I can, and drive like a bat outta hell."

The cost for a new balloon system depends upon what you want to do. In ordering a balloon, says Sena, "The biggest consideration is money. If you want to have all sorts of spiffy stuff, you better be prepared to write a big check." A basic sport balloon system (carrying three or four people) with a 70,000-cubic-foot envelope starts at about $18,000. Competition balloons begin at about $25,000 (an active group of balloonists holds numerous hot air and gas balloon competitions each year, from Indianola, Iowa, and Battle Creek, Michigan, to Osaka, Japan), while ride balloons, able to carry four or more passengers, go for $30,000 and up. Those figures include the basket, tanks, burners, envelope and instruments. Incidentals such as a two-way radio, an inflator fan, insurance and a chase vehicle are extra. Envelopes today are usually good for 500 or more hours of flight, depending on flying conditions and balloon maintenance. Another category of hot air balloons, called special shapes, are limited only by the imagination and the checkbook. Everything from 150-foot dragons to Sleeping Beauty's castle, from Tony the Tiger to Carmen Miranda, are now flying, at costs running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Another source of balloons is the used ballon market, mainly from the sport ballooning boom of the 1980s, says George Russell, senior pilot at Hot Air Balloons International in New Jersey. "Back in the '80s, everybody had a lot of money and you could buy a complete balloon for $8,500 to $10,000. There're a lot of balloons around; they put 50 hours on 'em and they're sitting around in garages somewhere." But it's buyer beware. Balloon envelopes left sitting in a garage instead of being flown tend to lose their airworthiness quickly, as they mold and the polyeurethane coating on the fabric breaks down. What may seem like a bargain may not hold air.

Some of those balloons are collecting mold because their owners were swept up in the romance of the sport without taking into account the work involved. "The '80s were a surge for ballooning," says Rush. "Some were in it for sport, some were doing it for extra income. But you have to have a real good kharma with your family because of the hours and the times." Which is why so many balloonists involve their spouses and children in the sport.

Balloonists fly twice a day--dawn and dusk, when winds are at their calmest. That means waking up at 4 a.m. for the dawn flight, catching a midday nap, and then preparing for the evening flight--checking weather reports, filling propane tanks, prepping the balloon.

If the winds are calm--usually under six mph in congested areas such as the U.S. Northeast and a few mph higher in open spaces like New Mexico--then you make your flight, touch down and prepare for the next morning. If the weather doesn't cooperate, which happens often--a breeze strong enough to stir your hair is too windy for ballooning--you pack it all up for another day.

Safety is paramount among balloonists, with power lines and unpredictable winds the main concerns. When in doubt about the weather, pilots stay on the ground. Flying out of control and rough landings may make for exciting storytelling, but few pilots take that chance. Those who do usually hear an earful from their fellow pilots when they land. "There's a lot of peer pressure, but there's also a lot of peer education," says Bruce Hale. "We have safety seminars that tell us how to look for power lines," which are extremely difficult to detect from above, among other safety tips.

Another top priority of balloonists is landowner relations. "Ninety-nine percent of the people watching don't mind you landing there," says Rush. "But you gotta make sure your chase crew's there, make sure they have permission, and that they shut the gates." And the pilot has to keep the balloon away from livestock and farm crops, he adds.

In fact, says Wright-Smith, the tradition of carrying the celebratory bottle of Champagne on balloon flights originated when the sport was in its infancy, as a peace offering from French balloonists to farmers whose crops they may have damaged upon landing.

Though balloons are a lighter-than-air craft, on the ground they tip the scales. "There's a lot of physical labor involved," says Rush. "Even if you have just a two- or three-passenger basket, you're talking about 300 or 400 pounds with full tanks, and the envelope's a couple hundred pounds."

But for balloonists there are countless moments that make up for the minor hassles. For Sena, a favorite ballooning moment is on the ground: the Albuquerque Fiesta's nighttime Balloon Glow, when hundreds of balloonists, keeping their balloons on the ground, fire up their burners at the same time.

"There is a magic to it," he says, "something that's almost indescribable. It has an ethereal quality. You stand and watch when 400 balloons in the dark of night hit their burners at precisely the same moment, and the ground will rumble under your feet." And in the air, he says, his most memorable ride is "about two weeks from now."

For Rush and Mount, ballooning is the adventure of flying the campaign balloon of Leonel Fernandez, the present president of the Dominican Republic, in small towns and stadiumsaround the country during the Dominican elections last year. Or flying over the million-dollar estates and rolling green hills of western New Jersey.

For Wright-Smith, the joy of ballooning is teaching new pilots how to get off the ground and fly safely, watching the excitement in their eyes as they learn the sport that's so much a part of her own life.


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