Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Come float away

Story by Vicki Pounders, Shoals Magazine

For Jeff Maddox, there's nothing quite like a ride in a hot air balloon.

“There are several elements of ballooning that make it magical,” said Maddox, owner of Gone With the Wind Balloon Co. in Toney. “Possibly the biggest is the fact that ballooning is the closest thing you will ever experience to floating on the clouds. There is no turbulence as you fly like in a plane — no bumping or shaking. Also, the fact that you are flying in an open basket thousands of feet in the air or picking leaves off a tall tree all under an eight-story tall multicolored beautiful balloon ... There's just nothing like it.”

John Hardeman and Cookie Crandall, both of Florence, agree. Hardeman's wife, Laura, arranged for a balloon ride for his 50th birthday.

“On my 49th birthday, we were sitting at the table, and Laura said, ‘What do you want next year?' ” said Hardeman, now 70. “I said, ‘I want a hot air balloon ride.' She said, ‘Where am I going to find a hot air balloon?' I said, ‘I don't know, but you've got a year to figure it out.' ”

She figured it out, but there was a catch: She didn't want to go along. So good friend Crandall agreed to fly. Laura Hardeman and Crandall's husband, Jim, rode in the chase vehicle and were there to greet them at the end of the flight.

“We got in the balloon around 6 in the morning,” he recalls. “It was exhilarating. What's amazing is that when you go up and the burner goes off, it is so quiet that you can hear everything that's going on around you. We flew over a little canyon, and there were deer grazing. We lowered down and watched them for four or five minutes.”

He and Crandall both would love to fly again.

“I'd go again in a heartbeat,” she said.

Calvin McLaughlin, of Greenhill, plans to take his first balloon flight in May in conjunction with the Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic in Decatur.

“I saw how beautiful and how much fun they looked and knew I eventually wanted to ride in one,” he said.

Instead of waiting to ride, McLaughlin started reading about crewing balloons and piloting.

He hopes to work with crews at the Jubliee to learn even more. He's also a member of auntymonkey.com, a Web site filled with pictures and blogs about ballooning and the crews.

The Classic also is what drew Whit McCormack into ballooning. A friend asked him to help judge the races one year.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said. “I volunteered to help that year and joined the committee later that year and have been involved since.”

McCormack said being involved in the crew of a hot air balloon requires minimal training.

Pilots, though, go through much of the same training as airplane pilots. There also is an exam and flight test involved.

During training, the potential pilots are required to log a certain number of hours with their trainer and solo,” he said.

A few years ago, McCormack took his first ride.

“I was the president of the committee that year and had never had the opportunity to fly,” he said. “The pilots decided that they would try to take all of the committee members that had never flown up that year.”

Though he was excited, he also was nervous.

“To say that I was a little nervous would be a lie,” he said. “We inflated, and I climbed in the basket. Our ascent was pretty rapid, which for a rookie made me even more nervous. After we leveled off, we got more comfortable. I guess I was scared that the basket floor would give or at least wouldn't feel solid.”

To his surprise, that wasn't the case.

“I was also surprised at how quiet and serene the flight was with the exception of the burner,” he said.

McCormack said there's an old saying that the first balloon ride is free, but the second costs $30,000.

While he's been able to resist the urge to buy, not everyone can.

Maddox, for example, got into ballooning on his first wedding anniversary.

“I took my wife on a flight in Orlando, and it was great,” he said. “We had been looking for some side business that we could make some extra money but not have as a real job. This was perfect; three months later, we purchased our first balloon.”

Maddox is an electrical engineer, flying as a part-time job when weather permits.

“Probably the biggest thing about ballooning is that it is so extremely weather dependent,” he said. “If the weather isn't perfect, we simply reschedule for another day. Winds have to be very calm, typically 5 miles per hour or less. We fly early in the morning around sunrise and late in the afternoon a couple of hours before sunset because that is when the winds are the lightest and the most stable.”

June, September and October are the best months for flying, he said.

“We start flying after the ‘roar' of spring is over, so around here that's typically the end of April into the first of May,” Maddox said. “We will then fly until the end of November.”

Events such as the Jubilee, set for Memorial Day weekend, offer an opportunity for flying, as do private rides from Gone With the Wind and similar companies.

Maddox suggests dressing appropriately and bringing plenty of film.

Crandall agreed.

“I'd say just bring your camera and prepare to be amazed,” she said. “It's wonderful.”

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