Up, up and away over Westminster Pilots compete in balloon race

September 26, 1993|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff Writer

In a hot-air balloon, you go where the wind takes you.

Yesterday the wind was gentle, which made the floating easy for 10 hot-air balloons sailing over Westminster in the third annual Fallfest hot-air balloon race.

Skies were clear for take-off shortly after 7 a.m. In the air, the pilots and their passengers could see for 40 miles. Some even spotted Sugarloaf Mountain in southern Frederick County.

The balloonists set sail from the soccer field at East Middle School, following the lead balloon in a race to see who could drop a beanbag closest to a target placed in a field by the lead pilot.

The leader, Gene McClung of Rockville, followed the wind, which was blowing 12 to 15 mph, and began his search for a location to place the target.

Hot-air balloons fly in the early morning and before sunset when winds are calmest. Skies must be clear and the wind placid before a hot-air balloon can soar.

Mr. McClung's ascent in a red, white and blue balloon, owned by Remax Realty, was like a ride on a well-oiled escalator. There were no bumps or jolts, just a smooth, steady climb into the early morning sky.

"You're moving with the wind. There's no resistance," said Mr. McClung, 40, who manages shopping centers in the Washington area during the week. He works for Adventures Aloft, a Clarksburg balloon company, on weekends and has flown balloons for 12 years.

The wind was blowing north, carrying the balloon over Cranberry Mall and Route 97. The lack of crosswinds kept the craft to a straight course.

All was quiet above the city, except for the occasional bay of a barking dog.

At times, the pilot let the balloon drift downward, almost brushing treetops and giving passengers a close-up of backyard swimming pools, rows of fruit trees and cornstalks turning brown in the fields.

Pilots sometimes dip to let passengers pick apples off trees or pumpkins from fields, but Mr. McClung didn't try such tricks yesterday. He was searching for a large grassy field or wide street to place his target.

Periodically, he fired up a propane burner, whose 200-degree flame close above the passengers' heads provided a blast of warmth in the chilly 55-degree air and lift to the balloon, 80 feet tall and 55 feet wide. It's roar drowned all conversation.

As the sky brightened, a line of brown smog could be seen to the east.

The balloon drifted over farms on Sullivan and Old Bachmans Valley roads. The earthy smell of cows wafted up. Many farmers were just finishing the morning milking. Deer scampered across fields and cattle munched in pastures.

Some passengers worry about motion sickness, but the 500-pound wicker basket stays steady.

"You'd have to have the flu to get sick up here," said crew member Greg Hensley of Silver Spring.

Behind Mr. McClung, the nine racers carefully watched his moves. He was the "hare" in the race; they were the "hounds." They could not let their balloons pass his because they wouldn't be able to fly against the wind to reach the target he set.

The leader took his craft to 1,500 feet and floated as low as 50 feet in search of a landing place. He's careful not to land in crops or near horses or cattle, which are easily spooked by the roar of the propane burner.

"We try to be real conscientious of landowners' rights because, technically, we're trespassing," he said.

After floating northward for about 45 minutes and traveling about four miles, he spotted a 20-foot-wide grassy strip between two rows of soybeans in a field at Hashawha Environmental Appreciation Center. He landed, and Mr. Hensley threw out the 20-foot wide "X" target.

Only three pilots were close enough to throw their beanbags at it. One bag landed in woods nearby, another in the middle of the soybean field. The third landed atop Mr. McClung's balloon. That pilot, Pat Michaels of Poolesville, was declared the winner and claimed the $350 first prize.

Kevin Poeppelman, president of Adventures Aloft, earned the $250 second prize for his throw into the field, and Gordon Anderson of Edgewater took the $150 third prize.

Mr. Poeppelman has organized the Fallfest balloon race for the past four years. Last year, he canceled the race because of bad weather. Yesterday's weather was the best yet, he said.

After the race, pilots and passengers gathered in the middle school parking lot for the traditional champagne toast.

The custom dates to the late 1700s when Frenchmen were beginning to fly hot-air balloons. Pilots carried champagne to prove to suspicious farmers in whose fields they landed that they were countrymen and not aliens, said Mike Gerred, owner of Light Flight in Bel Air.

The pilots and passengers compared notes about the flight, laughed at their efforts to hit the target, then some headed to the Westminster Fire Hall for a pancake breakfast.

"All in all, it was a pretty good morning," Mr. Hensley said.

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