By JIM PERRY, Publisher
Gainesville Daily Register
Last Friday didn’t start out as an ordinary day. All the regular to-do items that I normally get were there, waiting. Meetings, appointments and all the task oriented stuff was ready for me in my overstuffed Outlook calendar file.
Something about that Friday was different… there was adventure on the horizon.
Friday, Sept. 7, at 4 p.m. was the scheduled start time for the first annual Sky’s the Limit Balloon Spectacular sponsored by the NTMC Foundation. I know you’re already familiar with the event because we’ve been promoting it for over a month. I had special instructions to be at the Tomlinson Hangar at the Gainesville Municipal Airport no later than 6:30 a.m. I was told to wear comfortable clothing and be prepared for anything.
I arrived on time, found a cup of coffee and was ushered into the pilot’s briefing. Six hot air balloon pilots had agreed to fly various media people including radio personalities and TV anchors into the wild blue yonder. Somehow I made the cut.
Each pilot had their specially equipped van or trailer to haul the balloon, equipment and crew to complete the designated flight plan. “Safety is our most important goal,” the pilots were told. Weather conditions were being monitored, wind speed and direction was carefully measured. Pilots paced the floor and gathered in quiet conversations.
At 7:15 word was given that the mission was a “go.” Pilots were told there was a window that would close after 8 a.m. or so. We were told the departure point would be the South Ridge subdivision south of Lindsay with a destination about 3 miles north at Gainesville Airport.
Pilots and crew made a quick exit to get to the ascension point so the balloons could be assembled and get airborne as quickly as possible. I had drawn the internationally famous ReMax balloon piloted by veteran balloonist Wayne Standefer. Also on hand was Broker Bill Williams along with Rita Greer from our local ReMax First Realty office. Everyone had gathered in a five acre field just west of the subdivision. It was a sight to behold as the 65,000 cubic foot ReMax balloon envelope was opened and spread across the ground. All around us, five other balloons were being assembled and made ready for take off.
By 7:30 the wind was already picking up again and two of the balloonists were thinking about aborting the mission. Wayne was still in “go” mode saying if we could get off quickly, everything would be fine. We were closest to the road and Wayne voiced some calm concern about clearing the two-story house immediately down wind. I asked sheepishly, “Uh, Can we clear the house?”
“I certainly hope so,” Wayne said with a grin.
Once everything is in place the plan is to open up the balloon with wind from a large fan, then hit the envelope with bursts of flame from the two on-board propane tanks until it begins to slowly take shape and rise above the basket.
“The trick is to not let her catch on fire,” Wayne said.
Things started happening pretty quickly and Wayne snapped a 12 foot tether line from the basket to the bumper of his van. “As soon as this basket tips upright, jump in and hang on,” he told me.
Once the balloon had gained enough lift from the burners, it was tugging like mad against that tether line on the van. We were thrashing left and right as Wayne reached up to release the tether. He had built enough lift that once the line was released, we shot skyward and missed the house by a good fifty feet. Everything onboard was perfectly still. We were moving at the exact speed of the wind, so there was no sense of motion at all. We were hanging in still air looking back at the remaining balloons on the ground. It was a wonderful feeling that I’ll never forget.
We moved swiftly over downtown Lindsay. It looked all neat and pretty from the air. It looked like a toy town that you’d see with an electric train set. We flew over St. Peter’s Catholic Church, which looks amazing from the air. Crossing Hwy 82, the truckers gawked and honked hello at us.
The gusty winds took us west of the airport well past the golf course into the ranch land and herds of cattle. Wayne had decided to sit us down in a field near CR 404.
“We’ll set down in the field past those trees and in front of the power lines” he said. “What power lines?,” I asked.
Turns out that 12 to 15 m.p.h. winds can hamper a balloon landing. Wayne kept tabs on wind speed and slowed our descent with alternating blasts of heat and opening the top of the balloon to release heat. I could tell that he was a master at his craft. He explained that we may hit hard, just get down in the basket with your back in the direction we’re headed.
The landing was masterful, we hopped about six times with Wayne controlling the rise and fall. The basket slid over on it’s side and I crawled out to grab a rope which was my assigned task upon exit.
The NTMC balloon spectacular was a great festival which will become better each and every year. I hope the wind cooperates more next year so you can take a balloon ride for yourself.