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Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon

August 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

No end of metaphors describe a hot air balloon suspended in the sky. To some, it’s a giant, free-floating lollipop, to others a floating bouquet of flowers. Even Christmas ornaments come to mind.

The sight of an inflatable riding the air currents brings out the kid in everyone.  Occupying the basket of a balloon, whether to sightsee or celebrate a milestone, offers a bird’s-eye experience. Most passenger flights last about an hour. Young, old or in-between, it’s an unforgettable joy ride.

The intrepid aeronauts who pilot these contraptions insist that hot air balloons truly are THE way to fly with the greatest of ease. Nebraska Balloon Club members are devotees of a time-honored pastime with its own rituals and traditions.

Ballooning is a hobby, business and sport for Tom Peterson, Rich Jaworski and Steve Lacroix, three active balloonists, instructors and NBC officers. The club promotes the activity statewide. Peterson, its president, said the group numbers about 100 members, including 29 pilots. It organizes free balloon flights, tethered and non-tethered alike, for dozens of charity events each year.

The three men have their own commercial balloon companies whose flights for-hire cover any occasion. Jaworski also does competitive ballooning — attempting extreme duration flights. He owns several world records.

Balloonists are as varied as their balloons, which range from towering to tiny, but all feel the tug of the breeze-blown freedom soaring among the clouds presents.

“There is just so no other way to fly that makes you feel so intimately associated with the Earth,” said Peterson, who pilots Dreamtime. “It’s the closest thing to that dream of flying I had and many other people had as a child, where you lean forward into the wind, spread your arms wide and you lift-off effortlessly. To be able to fly at tree-top level and pick the leaves off the top of a cottonwood or to dip down and brush the tassels of the corn, to follow the contours of the hills and valleys…

“If we go off over the Elkhorn River there’s some spectacular bluffs that drop a couple hundred feet. We come right over the treetops and drop right down following that fall of the land and we set down on a sandbar in the middle of the river. Then, when we take off again, we just hang there like the cottonwood fluff in mid-air. There’s no other way you can fly that you could do that. It’s definitely my passion.”

He equates skimming the air in a balloon with gliding on water in a sailboat. In each case, he uses cues to gauge wind speed and direction: ripples on the water’s surface, smoke plumes, blowing leaves.

Rich Jaworski said his balloon’s name, Euphoria, is an apt description for the experience of flying in one.

“I think it is,” he said. “It’s a feeling of happiness and buoyancy. Each flight is a different adventure. Never knowing where you’re going to land is part of the fun. It’s the antithesis of the American tradition of going from point x to point y. We go from point x, but we don’t know where point y is going to be. We’re definitely not conformists. We want to do something different.”

 

 

Just don’t call them casual thrill-seekers or madcap adventurers. The activity is too unforgiving to tolerate show-offs.

“I would not characterize any of the pilots I know as daredevils,” said Peterson, “because you can’t be a good pilot and be a daredevil. A daredevil is someone who is always pushing the edge and to be a good pilot you need to understand what are the limitations of the balloon, what are your limitations as a pilot and what are the limitations of the information you have about the weather. Meteorology is an imperfect science — we know some things but we don’t know them perfectly. If you’re a daredevil and pushing the edge eventually the edge catches up to you.

“The pilots I know and that are members of the club respect that edge and stay a safe distance back from it by staying within the limits of their abilities and skills and the capabilities of the aircraft.”

For Jaworski and fellow aeronauts a successful flight is a safe one. At the end of a trip he said he feels “self-pride and a sense of accomplishment.” The engineer said his penchant for “figuring out how things work” turned him onto ballooning:  “The beauty of the balloon and the tranquility of its flight, coupled with the technical challenges and the meteorological phenomena one has to come to understand, it just connects a lot of dots for me. Also, the social aspects of working with crew and passengers, and giving back to charities, have been very satisfying and fulfilling.”

Whether launching aloft alone or in a group, balloonists comprise a fraternity dedicated to what Jaworski calls “sharing the joy.” Some gypsy across the country from rally to rally, others fly close to home or only go up for special events.

The Nebraska Balloon Club makes regular launches at Zorinsky Lake and plans a summer slate of rides at Mahoney State Park, John C. Fremont Days, Iowa’s wine country and many other locations and events.

Whatever the occasion, said Peterson, once hooked, you’re a balloonist for life. “They’re just so magnificent, the colors, the fact you’re rising on nothing more than just a bubble of hot air. It’s just magical.”

For a schedule of summer balloon rides, visit nebraskaballoonclub.org/.

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