Riding the skies

From this high and lofty perch 500 feet in the air above Perris, Calif., the filling and launching of hot air balloons resembles time-lapse photography of the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. The balloon begins as a nondescript pile of nylon and slowly takes shape as a graceful, brightly colored object, eventually floating gently, almost aimlessly, across the landscape.

So it was with our balloon just minutes ago. Fred Ferguson and I had met at sunrise in this small California town, 70 miles from the coast, with no better purpose in mind than to hang around several hundred feet up in the air. Fred pilots a balloon to promote a brand of yogurt in various places across the country. He had invited me to spend the morning looking down on the farm fields of Perris.

He and John Mueller showed up in a green Ford van. The idea was for Fred and me to take a leisurely stroll through the morning sky while John followed below in the van to retrieve the balloon and occupants upon touchdown. John did not necessarily get the raw end of the deal. That's the way it works: A balloon in the sky requires a crew of three or four on the ground plus a chase vehicle. Crew members rotate in and out of the balloon.

Ballooning, riding the winds in a huge piece of cloth filled with hot air, will never overtake tennis in popularity, but it is growing at a surprisingly fast pace. On a given weekend, 30 to 40 balloonists show up at the field near Perris, pulling their wicker baskets and nylon-filled duffel bags ou of vans and off pickup truck beds, beginning the transformation from gravity-bound to lighter-than-air. Five years ago there were only half that number. And last October 360 balloons and their operators gathered first on the ground and then in the skies over Albuquerque, N.M.

There are some 3,000 licensed balloon pilots in the country, and it's probably safe to say that all of them plan their weeks around an obsession for getting both feet off the ground. Three thousand fans may not sound like much -- there are probably more bowlers than that in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. -- but considering that small, two-person balloons cost at least $10,000, the popularity is surprising. Operating the balloon also requires something on the order of a banker's salary. The propane fuel for heating the air currently runs around 70 cents a gallon, and the burner goes through about 20 gallons an hour. Thrown in gas costs for the chase vehicle, the extra cost of a truck or van large enough to transport basket and balloon, bank payments and insurance premiums, the the final tally runs between $40 to $50 an hour to float for 150 hours a year. Just getting a license soaks up $1,000.

The Federal Aviation Administration regards balloons as aircraft, and requires their pilots to be licensed. A simple pilot's license takes 10 hours of instruction and two exams. A commercial pilot must have 35 hours of flight time plus some tests for a license.

Some pilots, such as Fred, fly professionally. They make their living teaching the sport, giving rides, sometimes selling equipment, and flying balloons that endorse commercial products. Fred and his partner have spent the summer carting the yogurt balloon around the country, tethering it in parking lots at zoos and shopping mall openings. At home in Phoenix, Ariz., he does all of the above (he charges $120 an hour for lessons and rides), and flies for a local radio station as well. He enters races, shows up at various events, and generally positions the balloon with the radio station's call letters on the side in places where news media cameras are bound to show up.

"I make pretty good money," he says, "but I try to stay away from the part of the business that doesn't directly involve flying. That's why flying for corporations is so nice. I can spend most of my time flying."

Most of the sport's participants are not very formal. Balloonists seldom go up with the purpose in mind of getting from Point A to Point B. Travel is not a notion that dovetails easily with the physics of ballooning. True, there are competitions where reaching a specific Point B is uppermost, but competitions are secondary to the sport. The balloon goes where the wind goes, and the balloonists tags along. The primary object is to leave Point A below and behind.

On the ground, a hot air balloon is nothing more inspiring than a listless lump of nylon cloth. Out balloon was what they call a "seven," holding between 70,000 and 80,000 cubic feet of air. It was a large seven, 78,000 cubic feet, and held about 2.5 tons of air when inflated. Folded up into a blue canvas duffel bag the size of a stove, it weighed several hundred pounds. Definitely not lighter than air, but with some straining and grunting, John and I pulled the bag out of the van's side door while Fred slid the wicker basket out of the back.

To set the whole business up, the basket was laid on its side and the balloon unfolded straight out in front of it. John liften open the mouth of the balloon while Fred started up a large, wooden-bladed fan powered by a lawn mover engine. The fan filled out the shape of the balloon, and when it began to look something like a semideflated beach ball, Fred fired up the burner, hooked up four 10 -gallon propane tanks inside the basket.

With a roar, a six-foot tongue of flame blasted hot air inside the balloon. It rounded out, and after a few minutes rose slowly off the ground, righting the wicker basket.

We hopped in, and with a few short blasts from the burner, the balloon floated easily to about 100 feet. Below us, two hot air balloons were still on their sides inflating. Fred commented that one of them, a beautiful blue and red balloon, would fill much faster if the crew could just move the fan back about six feet, "But that's not something I would go up and tell him. People learn how to do things in ballooning a certain way, and they don't appreciate it when you walk up and suggest they do it a different way."

Balloonists are an independent lot, a conclusion reinforced by the size of the wicker baskets: something on the order of a slightly overgrown laundry hamper, where two's a crowd and three's a mob.

If Fred didn't think much of this other fellow's ability to inflate a balloon , he further doubted his ability as a pilot when the man strapped on a crash helmet:

"If I was a passenger, I wouldn't get in."

Ballooning poses some danger to its participants, but it is safer than it might look. There are few ballooning accidents. Even if the burners die at 2, 000 feet, the balloon acts like a parachute and breaks any fall.

"You might break a leg or two," Fred concedes, "but the fall won't be terminal, and I know people who have had that happen and just walked away." Most danger comes from ignoring better judgment about the strength and fickleness of winds. The blow in different directions and at different strengths at different altitudes. A strong gust can send a balloon into a hillside before the pilot can do anything about it.

Fred didn't think much of the other balloon down there on the field, either. It was a hot-air ship, one of only a handful operating in the country. The balloon -- a huge red and white striped affair -- resembled a blimp, complete with inflatable fins at the rear end. The gondola was an enclosed, aluminum cabin jammed with two seats and four 20-gallon propane tanks. On the back of the gondola sat a Volkswagen engine, a propeller mounted to its drive shaft. The hot air ship's pilot could go in any direction he wanted at any altitude he wanted, the devil take prevailing winds. That VW engine, though, attacked the early morning quiet with an awful din -- worse, no doubt, on the inside of the metal gondola.

A Frenchman had recently bought the thing, reportedly for $50,000, and he had a crew of about 20 -- most of them French-speaking -- running around trying to get it inflated and off the ground.

We watched all this activity for a while from the yogurt balloon. Fred operated our balloon like an elevator, picking out different breezes at different altitudes to circle the launching field at will, no mean feat since, to this untrained observer, the air was as relaxed as an editor after deadline.

"The skill in flying a balloon lies in finding air current -- feeling them and being able to stay with them," Fred explains. "It's very difficult at high altitudes to tell if you're going up or down; you have to be able to feel it."

The hot-air ship looked as if it would stay earthbound for some time to come, and our friend with the crash helmet had already drifted away, so we headed for thinner air and just drifted for about an hour.

Early morning is generally the best time to fly. The cooler temperatures mean less time on the burners, and therefore more time in the air (the colder the outside temperature, the less heat needed to warm the air inside the balloon). The sun has also not been up long enough to heat the earth, creating the thermal air columns and winds so hazardous to balloonists.

It's hard to take anything seriously while suspended below 78,000 cubic feet of hot air. The only impressive presence from up here is the earth and how big it is. It's huge, believe me. From 500 or 1,000 feet, everything seems just right. The farm fields look to be about the right size, and the road meandering through them seems, well, competent. Those hills over there are just about where they should be. It's all just fine, real mellow, and Ronald Reagan could be down there firing up the entire Republican Party and it wouldn't make any difference. Everything is casualty . . . nice.

It's quiet up here, peaceful. Just as one is able to see everything in a broad perspective, one hears everything from a distance. There are no assaults on the senses, nothing on the ground can reach as high as that wonderfully silent bag of hot air. All that shatters the peace are the occasional blasts Fred triggers on the propane burners right above our heads. The noise is considerable and the heat slightly scorching to my hatless head. (Fred wears a cowboy hat.) I don't mind, though. Without that occasional shattering of the stillness aloft, the balloon would descend, rapidly, shattering other things.

Baloons look as if they belong in the air. Planes don't; they are creatures of the ground that fly by bending the rules. More so for helicopters. Except for the increased noise and scenery change, sitting in a plane on the ground is not so different from sitting in a plane in flight.

Bein in a balloon, 2,000 feet up, though, is being in the sky.

Airplanes may be more efficient as transportation, but balloons need no such justification.They are fun. They were also first. Leonardo had dreamed about helicopters and gliders, but balloons took men into the clouds first, thanks largely to the experiments of the Montgolfier brothers in France in 1783.

That same year another early experimeter, Jacques Alexandre Cesar Charles, sent aloft a hydrogen balloon, which was destroyed by terrified peasants when it landed. But for the most part, the public was quite taken with the new invention. History books make note of one Pierre Blanchard, a Frenchman who began his ballooning career in 1784, using his vehicle to promote certain business concerns. He also sold tickets to those -- and there were many -- who wanted to watch him go up. Blanchard even loaded his contraption on a boat and lugged it to the new United States, where he put on a show for a Philadelphia crowd distinguished enough to include the George Washingtons (front row seats: $ 5).

There have been a few minor changes in the sport over two centuries. For example, or Blanchard's first flights he took along some oars. People thought wind moved in steady streams that one could row in. And various modifications, such as devices to stop the balloon from rotating during flight and to empty it quickly upon landing (so it wouldn't bump rather uncomfortably along the ground) , have been added. Otherwise, the only real new wrinkle to come on the scene arrived with the last year or so: one-man "hang" balloons.

They are called hang balloons because the pilot hangs from the balloon in a parachute-like harness, carrying the propane tank on his or her back. Compared with 56,000 cubic feet for the smalest of full-size balloons, these sportier models come in sizes from 8,829 cubic feet to 31,783 cubic feet. Altitude, range, and duration are roughly half of those for balloons such as the one Fred and I were flying. The records for larger models are 45,836 feet for altitude, 337.2 miles for distance, and 18 hours, 56 minutes for duration. The largest versions of the hang balloons have floated up to 21,250 feet, stayed up for 11.2 miles, and come down after 2 hours and 40 minutes.

A considerable difference, but the hang balloons are much lighter and therefore possible for one person to carry. They are also cheaper. Ready-to-fly packages cost $3,000 to $6,000, compared with about $20,000 for a big "seven" like ours.

One hang balloon thrill is "moon walking"; heating the balloon until you are almost weightless and then hopping across the landscape as if gravity were a figment of Sir Isaac Newton's imagination. A word to the weightless, walkingwise: TV antennas, power lines, and Reggi Jackson at bat can be hazardous to your health.

Would-be balloonists who find the cost of even a hang balloon prohibitive can make their own. The market is full of kits, starting at about $100 for patterns. The hardware (burners, tanks, etc.) goes for about $650 and up, and ripstop nylon sells for $2.50 a square yard. Unless you want the project to be handed down from generation to generation, a sewing machine also is a must. The same for a three-volume instruction manual, "Build Your Own Balloon" ($50).

Two of the world's most celebrated balloonists, in fact, built their own. Oddly enough, Hans-Peter Stelzyk and Gunter Wetzel built their huge nine-story-high balloon (one of the largest ever built in Europe) for just one flight. The balloon took two months to build, and on Sept. 15, 1979, the two men and their families -- eight people in all -- climbed aboard for the first flight. It lasted 28 minutes, and after it was over the balloon had lifted the Strelzyks and Wetzels from Possneck, East Germany, to freedom in Naila, West Germany.

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