Bride-to-be accepts on balloon flight


June 06, 1993|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Contributing Writer

It was almost dark in the fallow cornfield where pilot Michael Gerred had landed his hot-air balloon after taking two first-time passengers on a one-hour ride above the rolling countryside of north Harford County.

The balloon had been deflated and Mr. Gerred fired up the burners in the basket, illuminating the night as he lifted his glass and offered the traditional champagne toast of a balloonist:

"The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warmth. You have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in your laughter and set you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth. May your skies always be blue, your winds fair and your landings soft."

Just a few hours earlier, the passengers and a crowd of friends and relatives had gathered in a Forest Hill field to watch Mr. Gerred, owner of Light Flight Hot Air Balloons of Bel Air, and his ground crew chief, Jonathan Anderson, inflate the enormous balloon.

They stretched out the fabric of the vividly colored balloon on the ground after attaching it with stainless steel cables to the basket, which was laid on its side.

Mr. Gerred then turned on a gas-powered inflater fan and 1,200 yards of vertically striped red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple fabric began to swell with air and take shape.

Twenty minutes later, a six-story balloon towered over the barley field.

"It's beautiful," said Selene MacGillivary, a 22-year-old nursing student at Harford Community College. Her boyfriend, David Gorrell -- a 23-year-old accounting major who graduated recently from the University of Baltimore -- planned the balloon ride as a surprise for her.

Mr. Gorrell requested that the balloon be launched from a field on the 194-acre Harford County farm owned by his parents, Sandy and Wilson Gorrell.

"He's just so romantic," Miss MacGillivary said. "I never know what to expect."

Minutes later, the two climbed into the basket, which is 5 by 4 1/2 feet and can carry five people.

The burners roared, heating the air inside the balloon. The couple was lifted into the sky as the balloon began to drift north with the wind. Their hot-air balloon adventure had begun.

For those left on the ground, a different sort of adventure was getting under way. Their job was to track the balloon to its destination in a "chase" vehicle, assist with the landing, help the balloon travelers celebrate and provide transportation home.

Sounds easy enough. How difficult can it be to track a 70-foot-tall balloon with a diameter of 60 feet?

Mr. Anderson, the ground crew chief, quickly packed up the chase van and set off after the balloon. Within minutes, it disappeared, hidden by a forest. Mr. Anderson kept driving, choosing roads based on experience and the direction of the wind.

"He flies 10 miles, I drive 30," Mr. Anderson said.

Excited observers often stopped the chase van, which is marked with the balloon company's name, keeping the crew informed of the balloon's whereabouts.

"People always ask, 'How can you lose a balloon? It's so big,' " Mr. Anderson said. "But ideal flights are at treetop level or below. You can grab leaves as souvenirs. How many people have a leaf from the top of a tree? When the pilot goes low and the trees are high or if he goes deep in a valley, you can't see him."

Radio communications between the pilot and ground crew are minimal, but midway during this trip, the pilot reported:

"Be advised we have a wedding proposal and an acceptance."

The balloon was floating at an altitude of 700 feet when Mr. Gorrell popped the question and placed a diamond engagement ring on Miss MacGillivary's finger. He had planned for the moment since November, when he scheduled the flight with Mr. Gerred.

"I was so happy I could've jumped up and down, but I didn't want to jump too high," said Miss MacGillivary, who wanted to keep the words that they exchanged private. "He was the perfect romantic gentleman. And the balloon ride was breathtaking. It was the best experience I've ever had in my life. I don't think anything could ever top this day."

Hot-air balloon passengers often use the flight to honor a special occasion -- a birthday, a wedding anniversary, a graduation, a marriage proposal or even a wedding.

Mr. Gerred's Light Flight Hot Air Balloons is the only company that offers charter rides in Harford County and one of only a few full-time companies in the state, he said.

Flights may be scheduled for any time of year, but May, June, September, October and early November are the most popular months. Daily launches are madethe first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset. The cost is $175 per person.

"Every time the basket lifts off, the excitement of the first-time passenger rubs off a little bit," Mr. Gerred said. "We flew last winter when there was snow on the ground. It was quiet and we counted nine deer. It was like flying in Colorado."

Mr. Gerred selects a launch site from three dozen locations scattered around Harford County, based upon wind direction and speed.

Decisions about whether to fly and where to launch may be made right up to flight time and many passengers must reschedule due to unsafe weather conditions.

Only 65 percent of Mr. Gerred's 200 to 250 yearly charter flights are actually made on the first date scheduled.

"You have to watch the weather constantly," he said. "We're very conservative. It's better to be on the ground wishing you were flying than flying and wishing you were on the ground.

"You cannot steer a balloon," he continued. "You can change direction by moving to a different altitude. But a lot of the control of the flight occurs before takeoff. The selection of the launch site is the determining factor in where you're going to be."

When the flight is almost over, the pilot surveys the countryside below for a suitable field in which to land.

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