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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 1)

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.

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