View of everything on trip to nowhere

Experience the hot-air balloon -- silence, whimsy, weightlessness

December 03, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Seeing all but going nowhere Nancy Oldewurtel of Essex has long been fascinated by hot-air balloons. So, for her 25th wedding anniversary, she booked a trip on one for her and her husband, Steven.

"It's just something I've always wanted to do," she said, standing in a Carroll County field last week as the balloon was being readied for takeoff by Ron Broderick, owner of the Friendship Hot Air Balloon Co.

Roberta Thoren of Annapolis would be flying that day, too. Thoren had recently retired from ARINC, and had been given a balloon ride as a parting gift. She liked it so much that she was returning for a second ride, this time on her own dime.

"You can see for miles, and you're just floating through the air," she said. "It's like nothing you've ever felt before." Now that she's hooked, she plans to go ballooning regularly.

This time of year, Broderick said, people are thinking of balloon rides as gifts. Broderick's company sells the rides for $230 a person. Couples-only flights, popular for marriage proposals, are $599.

"People just have a fascination," said Broderick, who lives in West Friendship and has been running the business since 1992. "It's so quiet and peaceful, just floating along. All I can say is, everybody who flies, they absolutely love it."

Perhaps part of the appeal, he speculated, is that ballooning is pure whimsy. "It serves no purpose. You don't go anywhere." You just get to experience, for an hour or more, silence and the feeling of weightlessness.

Broderick, a Bell Atlantic retiree who divides his time between the ballooning business and working as a Web site developer, got hooked more than 15 years ago, when he rode a hot-air balloon during the Preakness Balloon Festival, he said.

"Once he had his first balloon ride, I knew we'd be getting a balloon," said his wife, Nancy. Ballooning has entered her blood, too. She now designs balloon-themed jewelry and patches, which she sells at ballooning shows under the name "the Pin Lady." She also decorates her Christmas tree with balloon ornaments that she finds in her travels.

Balloons are aircraft, Broderick said, and to fly one he had to get a balloon pilot certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration, which he did in 1990.

Broderick considers himself a cautious pilot, flying during only the most favorable weather conditions.

"I always err on the side of safety, meaning probably half the flights I've canceled; maybe I could have flown," he said. "If you don't push the limits, you have a very safe and very predictable sport."

Hot-air balloons operate on the basic theory that hot air rises. The balloon -- Broderick has two -- is filled with heated air so that it floats. By controlling the temperature with blasts of propane-heated air, Broderick can make the balloon go higher and lower, as low as the treetops and as high as several thousand feet. He can control the direction only by riding air currents at different altitudes.

Part of the fun of the flight is landing in a field or development and seeing the delight on the faces of onlookers, Broderick said. As they fly, Broderick radios to a ground crew that follows by car.

Last week, in what likely was one of the last balloon rides until spring, Broderick took the Oldewurtels, Thoren, and Thoren's friend Bruce Becker for a journey that lasted about an hour and 15 minutes. They landed in a farmer's field and finished the adventure with a champagne toast, as is the custom.

Broderick and Richard Ruehl, who has been a crew member with the company for about 10 years, met the clients in a nearby shopping center, driving a truck and towing the deflated balloon. Ruehl blew up a birthday-party-size black balloon and released it. The direction it flew helped the balloonists decide which launch site to use.

Broderick said that a balloon can travel 20 miles or more during its flight, so it is important to stay far from no-fly zones near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport or Washington. Last week, the Ramblin' Pines recreational-vehicle park was chosen as the launch site.

Setting up the balloon takes about a half-hour and begins with removing the basket from the truck and tipping it on its side. "That looks pretty cramped, actually," said Steven Oldewurtel. The basket is woven to look like the one flown by the Wizard as he escapes the Emerald City. It has a wood floor, so there is no chance of putting a foot through it.

Five people can fit inside, but without much wriggle room. Broderick said his balloon can take a total of 750 passenger pounds, which does not include his weight. The hotter the day, the less weight a balloon basket can carry.

Then the balloon is spread out and "fluffed" by a couple of crew members as it is filled with air. Stretched across the field, it looks like a lazy and colorful slug, lolling around to show off its panels of blue, green, yellow, purple, red and violet.

"OK, we're going to hot-inflate this," Broderick said. Propane flames roared to life, and the balloon grew bigger. As Ruehl held it to the ground with a rope, other crew members tipped the basket upright. Broderick and the passengers got in.

Broderick blasted more heat into the mouth of the balloon. At first, it was just an inch off the ground, floating. Then, it was higher. In the blink of an eye, the balloon was over the treetops, flying.

Information about the Friendship Hot Air Balloon Co.: www. ballooningusa.com, or 410-442- 5566.

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