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BALLOONING

Up, up, and away, once the weather allows

Email|Print| Text size + By Eric Goldscheider
Globe Correspondent / April 23, 2006

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.

Being faithful would be among those: having 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 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 provide redundancy and 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 the extraordinary sensation of being on the other side.

A balloon is massive, silent, and seems to make 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 had embraced our appearance that morning as a good omen.

Contact Eric Goldscheider, a freelance writer based in Amherst, at ericgoldscheider@hotmail.com.

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