Up, up, and away, once the weather allows
NORTHAMPTON -- Hot air ballooning is not for control freaks. The desire to be thousands of feet above the ground with precious
little influence over where you are going takes a special mix of personality traits.
Having faith would be among those: faith in the laws of physics, faith in those who are guiding you, and faith
that floating through the air at the whim of the winds will make for a good time.
For years I have watched colorful balloons float over the countryside of the Pioneer Valley, where I live. The sightings
were always unexpected and never failed to stir a sense of yearning mixed with wonderment. The prospect of casting my fate
to the wind, even for a few hours, always held a slightly unsettling allure.
Last month I finally acted on the impulse and an Internet search led me to www.blastvalve.com, which linked me with more
than 40 purveyors of lighter-than-air travel in New England. I entrusted my uplifting experience to Lisa Fusco, operator of
Pioneer Valley Balloons.
Fusco is an equestrian, a veteran environmental police officer, and co-owner of the Northampton Airport, where Pioneer
Valley Balloons is based. I had set my sights on the first day of spring as an appropriate time to go aloft. But I soon learned
that lack of control in this sport extends to scheduling. A low-pressure system had settled over New England, bringing winds
that make ballooning unwise. Fusco has an unblemished safety record and is eager to keep it that way.
After a week of waiting, there was a break in the weather. Fusco had a party of five booked and wanted to make me the sixth
in the larger of her balloons. Among the passengers was Kelly DeTample, a Hollywood production assistant who had just completed
an 18-month stint on location working on the sequel to ''Pirates of the Caribbean." She was fulfilling her 4-year-old niece
Becca's birthday wish by taking her and her brothers ballooning. The day was promising, so we gathered in the afternoon and
waited for some unexpected gusts to settle down.
After biding our time in an open field for a couple of hours, Fusco and her crew made a valiant attempt to inflate the
envelope, the fabric balloon that holds the air.
''If it starts to rock and roll we'll have to abort," she said.
And so it did, and we all went home. DeTample was heading back to the opposite coast the next day, so Becca's journey into
the wild blue yonder would wait for another season.
I, on the other hand, was available to return at 5:30 a.m. the next day for a sunrise attempt.
The crew that morning included Mary, Rick, and Doug Thayer, a family that had been drawn into ballooning two years ago,
when Fusco unexpectedly landed in their yard. They became stalwarts on Fusco's crew list, and this summer Doug, a high school
sophomore, intends to crew often.
The windsock at the airport was drooping. So, as the sun peeped over the horizon, we hauled the rainbow-colored stream
of polyester out of its brown canvas stuff sack, laying it in a straight line. We muscled the woven wicker basket -- still
the best shock absorber, according to Fusco -- off the trailer behind the chase van, hooked up the pair of propane burners
that put out 43 million and 23 million BTUs, respectively, and tipped the basket on its side. Then Fusco started a portable
gas-powered fan and for the next 15 minutes it blew cold air into the 120,000-cubic-foot envelope as it lay on the field.
Heat was added and the balloon stood upright, ready for boarding.
As Fusco opened the blast valve overhead, a 15-foot, 1,500-degree flame shot up into the balloon. It is loud and then it
stops, giving way to complete silence. As the temperature in the envelope approached 250 degrees Fahrenheit, we slowly began
to drift upward.
The sensation was unlike any I had ever experienced. There was no ear-popping pressure. It felt more like the ground was
receding than that we were climbing. The horizon expanded in all directions and before long the tiny chase van was heading
for the Calvin Coolidge Bridge across the Connecticut River.
Initially, we drifted westward toward Northampton. But the winds a little higher up took us on a northeasterly course toward
the farms of Hadley and then Hatfield. I learned that opposite prevailing winds near the ground and higher up are a good thing
if a balloonist hopes to steer at all. Before descending, a pilot may spit overboard (some bring confetti or shaving cream
for this purpose) in order to see what's happening with the winds below and so chart a course to the ground.
But for now, landing wasn't on my mind. I was too busy admiring the Smith College crew teams making their way along the
river in boats that from this height resembled exotic insects. We drew shouts of good cheer from the rowers.
The banter in the basket, provided by Fusco and Randy Riley, a pilot in training who was logging time toward his commercial
license, revolved around the mechanics of flying, idiosyncrasies of the landscape below, and a good deal of ballooning lore.
As we meandered upriver, the village of Hatfield provided the tapestry below us: white steeples, backyards -- some tidier
than others -- and fields dotted with livestock. As we started to descend, a woman holding a small child came to the edge
of her driveway to admire our massive ball of color and to wave.
We crossed over the elementary school, where children on scooters and bikes looked up as they arrived for classes. As we
got closer to the ground, the lower winds took us back toward the school. Our basket scraped the upper branches of trees with
spring buds ready to burst. Fusco pulled on the vent at the top of the envelope to let warm air escape and speed our descent
as we passed over the cemetery next to the school.
Watching the people below us as they tracked our flight with upturned faces, I recalled the admiration I had always felt
for the balloonists I watched from the ground. Now I knew what it was like to be on the other side.
A balloon is massive, silent, and inevitably makes a counterintuitive statement about gravity. There is something
magical about it.
The woman who had watched us from her driveway packed her preschool-age children into her car and came to greet us as we
landed in a nearby field. Later, Victor Hoyt, a photographer and restorer of pipe organs who was on Fusco's crew that day,
said the woman told him she had buried her father two days before in the cemetery we had passed. She embraced our appearance
that morning as a good omen.