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Flying High With Their Heads in the Sky - 2002-09-26

The first weekend in October, the world's largest ballooning festival will take flight in the American Southwest. More than 750 hot-air balloons from 23 nations will fill the skies in the annual International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I myself had hoped to soar in a hot-air balloon, high above the Kansas capital dome in Topeka. But, ironically, the morning was too windy. You would think that lusty gusts would be just the thing for an exciting balloon ride. But balloonists look for near-calm at ground level. When it's peaceful below, there's usually a slow, steady breeze thirty meters up, ideal for a gentle glide above the landscape.

"The only noise you have is when you have to hit the burner," says retired police officer Nick Stroup. "And most people I have taken up over the years are totally awestruck by the sights that you can see, the quietness, the calmness."

Nick Stroup with his wife, Diana, and some of their friends in the Great Plains Balloon Club of Topeka, will rise before dawn on a weekend morning and call for a detailed weather report. If all looks promising, telephones start ringing, coffee pots start bubbling, and soon pilots and their ground crews are off for a nearby park. "It's the camaraderie. It's a real family sport," says Diana Stroup. "There's kids that's been in it since the day they were born, sittin' in seats, chasin' balloons with their moms and dads."

There's about $80,000 invested in that camaraderie. That's what the Stroups spent on their "envelope," as the balloon is called, on the big wicker basket that hangs from it, on the propane tanks and burner that lift them, on the big fan that inflates the envelope, and on the sturdy small truck and trailer that haul it all.

At the launch field, the crew lays out the seven-story-tall envelope, inflates it, then jumps into cars to chase the balloon across the hills of east Kansas. If all goes well, and obstacles like long coal trains at railroad crossings don't get in the way, the chase team will be there to literally grab the balloon as it descends and gently set it down. "If the crew is there, you can land almost on a postage stamp," says Nick Stroup. "But if the crew's not there, then of course your option is, OK, here's a football field over here. Now if you can't hit that football field, then you probably should not be flying. Oh, you might bounce two or three times. But if the pilot's good enough, he'll have it stabilized and be standing up, waitin' for the crew when they get there."

Once aloft, a hot-air balloon is at the mercy of the wind. The pilot can make it slowly rise or fall by adjusting the burner, which controls a flame that can rise ten meters high into the inflated envelope.

But Paul Costello, one of the Topeka club's earliest members, knows all too well that while ballooning is usually serene, it can also be deadly. He has seen eleven people fall to their deaths when their nylon envelopes caught fire, struck power lines, or tore open and fell. Yet he is nonchalant about the sport's danger. "Many people have hit towers and slid down them. People land in the water, wiping out. So, yes, it gets a little bit scary," he says. "People wanting to jump. They start talkin' about suicide. So that sort of raises your hair, wondering if you can control them till you land. That's exciting!"

Paul Costello's wife, Connie Goodenow has twice jumped from balloons, 10 meters or more in the air, because they were heading straight for trouble. "It was a power line that wasn't supposed to be there, of course," she says. "I actually just kind of sat my bottom on the edge of the basket and very gently stepped out and down. Broke my glasses, and that was the only thing that really was any problem. We were in a plowed field, and then saw the steel post that was sticking out of the ground next to me! I think God watches out for us."

Hot-air balloon pilots must be licensed by the federal government, just like airplane pilots. They become pretty fair meteorologists, too, since a sudden storm or unexpected change in wind direction can spell trouble. A typical flight lasts just an hour, because the propane needed to keep a balloon and passengers aloft runs out fast.

Balloonists play games like "splash and dash," in which the pilot will attempt to skim the basket across the surface of a pond before taking it back up.

Sometimes balloons "kiss" in mid-air, meaning they deliberately touch. Nick Stroup's favorite mid-air game is called "hare and hounds." "The first balloon takes off. It's the hare. He'll fly 30 to 40 minutes at different altitudes, trying to find different winds. He'll land in a large, open field and put out a big X," he says. "The other pilots cannot take off until after the hare has taken off. They can't even inflate until the hare has taken off. They try to follow him and try to fly over that X and drop a baggie, and whoever gets closest to the center of the X wins."

As majestic as the sight of 700 colorful balloons, high above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains will be, Diana Stroup says the 100,000 or so ballooning enthusiasts on the ground in Albuquerque next week [this weekend] will be just as excited about what's called a "glow." That's when hundreds of balloons, tethered to the ground, light their burners at night, sometimes in a choreographed sequence accompanied by music. "They're like a bunch of Chinese lanterns, all sittin' on the fields," she says. "It really is a crowd-pleaser."

The Stroups will not be in Albuquerque this year. But, most likely, Sunday morning very early, they will call their friends, or their friends will call them and other pilots and crews. They'll set off for Gage Park and, prepare to glide above their Kansas homes. And when the pilots land, everyone will repeat a much-loved ritual, together reciting the balloonist's prayer:

"You have flown so high, and so well, that you have touched the face of God. And He has gently put you back into the loving arms of Mother Earth."

Then again, there could be another plan for Sunday. "Sometimes after 30 years of this," Paul Costello said, "it feels kinda good to stay in bed, nice and warm, and let the others go up."