By BRENNA GRITEMAN
Engaged in a hobby largely dominated by the whims of Mother Nature, hot air balloon pilots must be able to set up and tear down their massive machines at a moment’s notice.
A quick shift in the winds can mean a balloon can be taken out for an impromptu evening adventure, or dark clouds gathering can bring a morning ride to an abrupt halt. And although the balloons are hulking — some stand over 100 feet tall — and relatively complex, pilots have a knack for reacting to changing weather in the blink of an eye.
“The fastest I’ve ever been up is seven minutes,” said Shawn Raya, pilot of the colorfully checkered “Sullair 2017” balloon brought from Oxford, Michigan, to this year’s Flag City BalloonFest.
(That seven minutes, by the way, is the time from pulling the van onto the launch site to standing fully upright and ready to fly.)
Raya’s quick skills were shown off during the Findlay festival’s Friday morning kickoff. While planned media rides were canceled due to rain in the area, about a dozen pilots inflated their balloons to give spectators an up-close look at their brightly hued contraptions.
With the threat of rain looming, Raya’s was the first balloon inflated, closely followed by the RE/MAX balloon piloted by Jim Cusick of Marysville, Ohio. Cusick said his record setup time is eight minutes, from van to upright.
Both pilots said teardown is a bit longer process. As a quick summer rainshower made its way over Emory Adams Park, all balloons were deflated and packed safely into their vans in 10 minutes or less.
Raya has been involved in the sport since 1983, having learned from his father. He considers ballooning a family affair and his son, Joshua, is already a student pilot at age 14.
The Sullair (a Hitachi Group company) balloon is a 60,000-cubic-foot competitive racing balloon. Raya explained that 1 cubic foot is equal in size to a basketball, so essentially, the balloon’s envelope (the brightly colored nylon part) could hold 60,000 basketballs. The gondola (basket) holds cylinders filled with 45 gallons of liquid propane — about 20 gallons of which would be used during an average hourlong flight.
The propane burner acts as the balloon’s engine and propels the hot air into the envelope, making the balloon move upward into the air.
Raya said a pilot can control moving up or down, but has little control over which direction the balloon will fly. To move in a particular direction, they must use heat to ascend or descend to the desired level, then catch a wind current.
That being said, a pilot also must decide where they intend to land on the fly.
“I decide where I take off, but I do not know where I’ll land until five, maybe 10 minutes before landing,” Raya said.
When landing becomes imminent, he’ll start looking for a large open space away from trees, power lines and homes. Fast winds make for a rougher landing than slow, steady winds.
“Every landing looks like a crash landing, but it’s a controlled crash, we like to say,” Raya said, pointing out there are no wheels on the bottom of the gondola.
Federal Aviation Administration inspector J.R. Rollins was present at Friday morning’s kickoff and said a team from the department will remain on hand all weekend. He noted that aside from threats of rain, balloonists must always be vigilant about wind speeds at higher altitudes.
“This is a different kind of flying. They’ve got a lot of different stuff to worry about than regular pilots,” Rollins said.
Unlike last summer’s BalloonFest, when not one flight got off the ground, organizers expect today and Sunday to be a great weekend for flying.
The balloons are scheduled to fly into Emory Adams Park at 7 a.m. today and Sunday, weather permitting.
Balloons also will fly to the park between 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. today, weather permitting.
Tethered balloon rides, for a fee, are scheduled to be available from 6:30-8:30 p.m. today, followed by a balloon illumination ceremony at 9 p.m.
Other highlights today include live music, a kids’ fair, beer garden, a car and motorcycle show, petting zoo and a vintage base ball match.
On Sunday morning, there will be a free pancake breakfast at 6:30 a.m., followed by an outdoor church service at 7:30 a.m.
A full schedule of events, including links to balloon ride reservations, is available online at flagcityballoonfest.com.