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Time Traveler: Up, Up And Away!

8 minute read
Laura Koss-Feder

I get vertigo at heights and suffer from motion sickness in cars, planes and boats. And I’m not the most adventurous person in general. So what in the world was I doing in a hot-air balloon thousands of feet over Albuquerque, N.M.? Simple: having the time of my life.

It was 1999, during the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world’s largest event of its kind. As soon as we took off in the cool dawn air, any trepidation I had instantly dissipated. My frazzled New York City nerves melted. I felt as if I were floating on water–completely quiet, calm and still–as the pilot, two other passengers and I let the breeze carry us about seven miles from our launch site. Although we were moving, it seemed as though we were standing still and the world around us were changing vistas.

After my 45-min. flight, I served as part of an eight-person crew that helped the next passengers get aboard, then followed along in a truck to assist them once the balloon landed. When I was finished riding and crewing, all I wanted to do was go right back up for another ride. I was like a 3-year-old who had just got off the slide for the first time and was tugging on her mom’s dress to let her try it again and again.

Many others will experience the same exhilaration this year at the 30th Albuquerque bash, to be held Oct. 5-13 in Balloon Fiesta Park. About a million people are expected to attend, says fiesta director Pat Brake, with a showing of some 750 corporate, private and balloon-company vessels from 30 countries. As many as 60% of these balloon enthusiasts–spectators, passengers and pilots–are 50 or over, says Scott Appelman, president of Rainbow Ryders Inc., a full-service balloon company that is the official ride operator for the fiesta.

The trend holds true nationwide in this $50 million industry, according to Rick Jones, president of the Balloon Federation of America. Baby boomers, having more discretionary income, can afford ballooning (the rides cost anywhere from $150 to $225 an hour per person). These seasoned travelers have already been to the world’s great cities, and may be looking to try something different at this point in their lives, Jones notes. And the inspiration of Steve Fossett’s recent round-the-world balloon flight at age 58 hasn’t hurt. “Ballooning is a sport that takes time, patience and some money, which works well when the kids are grown up and out of the house,” says Jones. “I’m 37, and I feel like a kid when I’m around most balloonists.”

This is how the sport works: To inflate a balloon, members of the crew spread out the envelope, or fabric, portion on the ground, and cool air is blown in by a large fan. As the envelope inflates, the crew holds the mouth open while the pilot directs hot air into the envelope from a propane burner attached to the gondola. Because the hot air is lighter than atmospheric air, it makes the vehicle, in most cases 600 to 700 lbs., buoyant. After lift-off, the propane burner and a vent are used to control the altitude. To make the balloon go up (rarely higher than 2,000 ft.), air is heated inside the envelope; going down involves letting the air in the envelope cool off. The pilot can control only whether the balloon ascends or descends; the wind does the rest. Ballooning works best in dry weather conditions at sunrise or sunset, when the wind is usually calmer. The typical gondola holds three to five people, including the pilot.

To book a balloon ride at the Albuquerque festival, you can call Rainbow Ryders (800-725-2477) or log on to its website (see box). Although reservations opened in January, the company will take bookings right up until the festival, Appelman says. The cost is $220 per person–or $185 if you help in crewing–for a guaranteed 45-min. flight. You can also take a chance and book a ride on the spot on a first-come, first-served basis–but for morning flights, plan to arrive by 5:15 a.m.

Here are a few practical tips. Get a good night’s sleep the night before you go to the fiesta. Wear clothing in layers; it could be 40[degrees]F at a 7 a.m. launch and 80[degrees]F by noon. The sun at 1,000 ft. is pretty strong, so pack water, sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat that fits securely. Take a camera to capture the breathtaking Southwest scenery. Since you may arrive in the dark, pack a flashlight. And if you have a bad back or joint pain, you may want to restrict yourself to the spectator ranks: the landings can be rough. But being a spectator can be breathtaking too; most evenings during the fiesta there is a “balloon glow” at 5:45 p.m., when the inflated balloons can be viewed tethered to the ground, followed by a fireworks display at 8 p.m.

If you want to avoid the balloon ride’s price tag, arrive at the fiesta at 5:30 a.m. and head to the chase-crew tent to volunteer your services to a balloon pilot, Brake suggests. Or you can log on to the fiesta’s website in advance to offer your services as a crew member. You are not guaranteed a ride as part of a crew. But at the least you will probably receive plenty of high fives and a hearty burrito breakfast afterward to celebrate the success of the morning flights.

“I loved crewing and being part of such a nice team effort at the Albuquerque fiesta. And when you’re up in that balloon, you feel like you’re on top of the world,” says Evelyn Gilstrap, 49, co-owner with her husband Dick, 73, of five Gilco Inc. convenience store-gas stations in Glenwood Springs, Colo. The Gilstraps have even rented a balloon as a promotional vehicle for their business, offering rides to local residents when Gilco opened new stores.

Some who have ventured to Albuquerque over the years have enjoyed the sport so much that they have become experienced pilots in their own right. But this is not an inexpensive pastime. Buying a used balloon to train on costs $6,000 to $8,000, and a new balloon averages about $25,000, says Carolyn Grantham, partner and vice president of finance for World Balloon, an Albuquerque ballooning company that also teaches the sport. Custom-designed, special-shaped balloons can run as high as $200,000. At Grantham’s school, one of a handful in the nation that are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), flight lessons cost from $180 an hour if you have your own balloon to $310 an hour if you don’t. FAA requirements for a private pilot’s license are 10 hours of flight instruction, 20 hours of classroom training and passing grades on written, oral and flight tests.

The costs didn’t deter ordained minister and balloon pilot Stephen Blucher, 60, who opened his own ballooning company, Rocky Mountain Hot Air Lines, 18 years ago in Colorado Springs, Colo. “The freedom that you feel up in a balloon, the majesty of the scenery below and the camaraderie you get from crewing can’t be found in any other sport that I can think of,” says Blucher, who has even performed weddings on his balloons.

John Lennon, 58, a cyberoptics technician in Manchester, N.H., caught balloon fever eight years ago. “It was everything and more that I thought it would be, and I knew I would eventually go on to become a pilot,” he says. Now he not only has his license but also recently bought his first new balloon, for $30,000.

Besides Albuquerque’s annual balloon blowout, 300 smaller festivals are held nationwide, says Jones of the Balloon Federation of America. In most four-season climates, these events take place between the beginning of April and the end of October. They range from the Quick Check New Jersey Festival in Readington (July 26-28) to the National Balloon Classic in Indianola, Iowa (Aug. 2-10), to the Colorado Springs Balloon Classic (Aug. 31 to Sept. 2).

Betty and Corky Christman have been riding and crewing at an annual balloon festival in their hometown of Billings, Mont., for the past decade. Betty, 60, a retired office administrator, enjoys the fun of crewing with anywhere from three to 10 others. She and Corky, 62, a real estate broker, have made several good friends over the years through their 6:30 a.m. ballooning adventures. Most of all, there’s that special feeling of being airborne. “When I’m up in a balloon, it feels like I have wings and everything is easy, calm and good,” Betty says. “Ballooning is the closest thing to being in heaven on this earth.”

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