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For balloonists, to air is human

Enthusiasts display their colorful craft during a show before Saturday's festival.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001

Imagine six multicolored, seven-story buildings suddenly taking flight, and you get the idea of how it looks when a half-dozen giant hot air balloons take to the skies.

[Times photo: Janel Schroeder-Norton]
Jessica Warren, 23, helps her brother Rick Allen, 15, pack up their American Dream balloon on Thursday morning.
That was the scene shortly after sunrise Thursday as balloon owners did a pre-show shakedown at the Starkey Ranch in Odessa in anticipation of Saturday's Celebration Pasco Balloon Festival. (See story in today's Steppin' Out.)

"The balloons are about 70 feet tall and 60 feet wide," said Barbara Stokoe, who had brought her balloon to the launch site. Once inflated, they loomed over the earthbound like a line of giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Men from Ghostbusters.

When a balloon goes up, the people in the tiny wicker gondola below are at the mercy of the winds. The pilot can make the balloon rise or descend by pulling on ropes to open little vents in the balloon, or "envelope," and letting out the heated air, but the pilot can't make it go in a chosen direction. That's why each balloon has a "chase crew" that follows along on the ground to bring the balloon and its passengers home from wherever they end up landing.

To test the winds on Thursday, Melissa Roe of Celebration Aviation brought out two small, black balloons filled with helium just at dawn. One by one, she let them go, as a couple of dozen people on the ground watched with intense interest.

The first balloon zoomed upward, swirling crazily, then headed due west toward the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's a little too windy up there," said Dave Justice, Celebration Aviation's owner and a 23-year veteran of balloon flight on five continents. "Our balloons would do exactly what that balloon is doing. That wind is at about 10 knots at 150 feet up, and it won't be long before it's down here."

So the crowd went to a field sheltered by a ring of trees, unrolled the balloons, filled them with heated air and tethered them to their vehicles by long ropes, where they bobbed up and down like puppies jumping for joy at the end of a leash.

Brisk winds aren't a problem for riding in a balloon, Justice said. "You're moving along with the wind, so you don't even know it. Your hair doesn't blow around; you could light a match and it would burn steady."

The problem comes with launching and landing, when heavy ground winds can drag a gondola across a field or parking lot and spill the passengers out. Worse are "thermals," shafts of hot or cold air that can send a balloon spiraling up or down hard. Thermals are most likely to happen in midday, which is why balloonists prefer morning flights.

An ideal situation is calm wind at the surface and less than 10 knots, or 11.5 mph, once the balloon is aloft, Justice said. The ideal temperature is about 65 degrees, warm enough for comfort, but cool enough that the heated air pumped into the balloon will provide adequate lift.

"We're getting into really good flying season now," Justice said.

A gondola can hold up to 12 people, but most of them are built for two to four people, plus a pilot. Full rigs cost from $15,000 to $200,000, depending on size and design, Justice said. His company sells between 12 and 15 balloons a year.

Tampa has two companies that offer private rides, Justice's and the Big Red Balloon, both of which launch from northern Hillsborough and southern Pasco counties. Some individual balloon owners also offer rides. Rides of one hour or so cost from $150 to $160 per person. Most include a celebration at flight's end, with toasts and flight certificates.

Saturday's festival will have tethered balloon rides for $10 for adults, $5 for ages 12 and younger, between 9 and 11 a.m., winds permitting.

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