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Extreme Style

Jessica Perron

"Just A Lot of Hot Air"

There are few sights one could see and call spectacular. The Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, or possibly the majesty of a sky full of hot air balloons. When I see a hot air balloon, I stare in awe every time, as if it were the first. I seldom see them and I had just assumed they were a rare occurrence. Well, it turns out that they are not as rare as I had thought. In fact, while most of us are still in REM sleep, balloon pilots and enthusiasts take to the skies in droves, and I was about to find out why.

After meeting up with a couple of friends, we made our way to our predetermined location, which in this case was a Perkins parking lot, to meet our pilot for the day. As we pulled up, I could see two men and a truck with a big basket in the back. I wondered if we would actually be taking off from this parking lot. Our pilot, Bob Wilamoski, who was talking shop with his assistant, greeted us.

As I stood in the quiet, dark, parking lot sipping my morning coffee, Bob took out a small balloon, filled it with helium and let it go. It slowly went up, straight up, into the sky until we could not see it anymore. He sent up another and once again, the balloon went straight up and disappeared. I was beginning to realize how much the wind played a factor in our flying. There did not seem to be any wind to carry the balloon.

Not only is wind necessary to fly a balloon, but the type of wind is important as well. This is why balloon pilots like to fly in the early morning when there are calm winds flowing parallel to the earth, allowing for a smooth, calm ride. As the sun rises and the earth heats up, thermals of heat begin to form, causing the upward flow of heat and air. This effect will carry a pilot straight up to a high altitude fairly quickly. In other sports, like hang gliding, pilots hope to find thermals for a longer and more enjoyable ride. For a balloon pilot, thermals can make for a bumpy ride, so most pilots try to avoid them, especially commercial pilots who have passengers to consider.

Hot Air Balloon Rides in Central Florida

I began to feel disappointed at the thought that we might not be able to ride for lack of wind. At that moment Bob's phone beeped. It was another pilot who told him of a new location with a good amount of wind. We jumped in his truck and off we went. I realized that we were in the company of people who live to chase the wind. This is what they do every day, and we were just observers along for the ride.

On the ride over, I learned that Bob, who runs Bob's Balloon Charters, has been flying balloons for twenty years. In fact, he built his first balloon himself out of fabric, and he designed and built his own burner as well. Today, Bob is a licensed commercial pilot. It takes ten hours of airtime to receive your pilot's license and thirty-five hours for a commercial pilot's license certified by the FAA. The balloon itself must also undergo strength tests to insure structural integrity. Temperatures inside the balloon can reach over 200 degrees, which can eventually wear down the inside lining of the fabric. Therefore, someone like Bob, who flies often, would need to replace it every couple of years.

The incoming sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon as we topped the hill and approached the new site. Now that we could see out over the landscape, we noticed three balloons had already taken off and another was racing to do the same. We stopped the truck and the guys immediately began to unload the balloon. They rolled it out flat on the ground and laid the basket on its side below. Then they hooked the balloon to the sides of the basket and started to fill it up with air. Slowly it began to inflate; it was so huge that at one point Bob let us go inside of the balloon and walk around to get a sense of how big it really was. After the balloon was completely filled with air, that air must be heated in order to get the balloon off the ground. There are three gases that balloonists use for this purpose: helium, hydrogen and propane.

Once the balloon was ready it was time to go. First Bob got into the balloon and then he motioned us to join him. I jumped into the basket and held on tight as we left the ground and floated away.

Hot Air Balloon Rides in Central Florida

What a surreal sight it is to see the balloons flying out in the distance and the flames firing up into the balloon above us. The sky was yellow and orange, and the morning fog settled like a blanket over the treetops below us. There was a sense of weightlessness as we climbed higher into the sky. I felt a slight churning in my stomach as I watched the ground get farther and farther away. Trees began to look like twigs on the ground below, houses and buildings like shapes and patterns.

We continuously climbed until we had reached a height of 1,800 feet. I wondered how much higher we could go. Every couple of minutes I would feel a rush of adrenaline, (or it might have been a little bit of acrophobia), but I had a smile on my face as I stood in wonderment the entire ride. Bob explained that although being so high up can be a rush, he prefers to fly lower to the ground. With all the power lines, air traffic and tall buildings, of course there are height restrictions. Orlando's piloting laws require balloon pilots to fly no less than 2000 feet above Animal Kingdom.

The winds were calm so we drifted slowly over the landscape identifying the names of lakes and different areas of town. We floated above a lake and we could see our reflection in the water below. We even saw a lake shaped like a heart, and we though about how romantic a hot air balloon ride could be. We laughed and thought how someone could write, "Will you marry me?" on the ground below or even get married while floating through the sky. Oddly enough, we were not the first ones to think of this idea: Bob is a notary, and he performs wedding ceremonies high above the earth in his hot air balloon. Not only that, but can you believe he also skydives out of his balloon? This must feel quite different from jumping from an airplane because there is no wind resistance, just a complete freefall. It would be like skydiving off a mountain cliff. Hot air ballooning is not just a novelty to Bob, But also an extreme style.

As we descended, we watched the other balloons landing below us. We watched the ground, looking for a spot to land as Bob's assistant chased us in the truck on the ground. Bob picked his landing area and down we went. The closer we got to the ground, the faster it seemed we were going. Just as we were about to make our final descent, a gust of wind pushed us too far past our target. Bob fired up the burner again and up we went back over the trees.

Once clear again for landing, he warned us to bend our legs for impact and he put the balloon on the ground. The basket hit and bounced back up, jumping a few feet before finally making a complete landing. What an unbelievable ride!

After packing up the balloon, we were off again to a surprise third location. Upon arriving, we were greeted with champagne, fruit, and a story of the first balloon ever made. Two brothers, Josef and Etienne Montgolfier, from Annonay, France, built the first balloon out of silk and paper in 1783. King Louis XVI had interest in testing the abilities of the balloon. Instead of risking the life of one of the brothers, and after dismissing the idea to send a prisoner, he decided to send up goats instead. However, when the villagers received the balloon and saw the goats, they believed that King Louis had sent them demons and considered the balloon to be a curse. To remedy this belief, the King decided to send champagne in the balloons so that they would be admired and not feared. Today, it is a tradition to have a champagne toast after every balloon ride.

I plopped a juicy red strawberry into my morning mimosa and smiled at the incredible sense of freedom and love for life that I felt at that moment. We raised our glasses for a final toast, The Balloonist's Prayer.

"The winds have welcomed you with softness. The Sun has blessed you with his warm hands. You have flown so high and so well, that God has joined you in your laughter, and has set you gently back again in to the loving arms of Mother Earth."

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