By BRENNA GRITEMAN
“Is everybody ready?” asked Mike Perkins, scanning the faces of our part-eager, part-visibly-nervous flight crew.
He activated the burner and the massive, striped hot air balloon, aptly named “Painted Sky,” began to rock back and forth, hovering several feet over the dewy grass at Findlay’s Emory Adams Park.
And just like that, “We’re flying!” Perkins proclaimed.
Lighter than air we launched up, up, up — 500 feet per minute in what felt like nothing more than a subtle, dreamy climb. The early-morning breeze carried us east toward the just-risen sun, silhouetting the handful of hot air balloons that had taken off ahead of us as the 19th annual Flag City BalloonFest got underway early Friday.
Just like in an airplane, the country roads and farmland took on the shape of perfectly fitted puzzle pieces down below. The Blanchard River wound picturesquely through the landscape and patches of forest looked like small art installations as we hovered 1,400 feet above the earth.
This was no airplane, though, and I allowed myself to lean far over the side of the basket, taking in the cars moving like toys on a track, the light glittering off the Findlay reservoir.
I had expected it to be cold so far above the ground, but the change in temperature is only a single degree. I had wondered if it might be turbulent, so far into the atmosphere, but we literally floated on air, not a single sound aside from the propane heating the burners and my constant stream of questions for the pilot.
This was a homecoming of sorts for Perkins, who moved from Findlay to Las Vegas with his wife, Michelle, in 2015.
“And I’m joining you in taking pictures, because this is my first flight in Ohio,” he said.
After working 30 years at RPM Carbide Die in Arcadia, Perkins decided he might like to try something new. Hot air balloon pilot wasn’t in the plans, but it suits him just fine.
“This is my office. This is the view I have every day,” he said, gesturing in all four directions.
He and Michelle took a hot air balloon ride three years ago for their anniversary. It was an act of love, as Michelle is no fan of heights. One year later, Perkins had his private license to fly, and after another eight months he had earned his commercial license.
Perkins is now one-half of Sin City Balloon Co., flying an average 22 days a month in the summer.
Hot air balloon pilots have been prohibited from flying over the Las Vegas Strip since 9/11, but its lights make for a nice backdrop during evening flights.
Perkins is partial to flying up over mountains and down through canyons, though he’s at the whims of the wind. He’s watched tortoises march through the desert, lizards skitter over the rocks and rattlesnakes slither across the land.
“You see the whole valley, from one mountain range to the other,” he said. “On a clear day you can see Lake Mead.”
Here in Findlay, the terrain is decidedly flatter.
But it is not without beauty. We hovered low over corn and soybean fields, watching grasshoppers jump from one stalk to the next. We floated over the four-lane traffic on Ohio 15 and counted five cars and an ODOT truck that stopped to take our picture along a county road.
We waved back as excited homeowners waved from porches and upstairs windows. And we even came in close for what we learned is called a “splash and dash,” during which a pilot grazes the surface of a pond with the floor of the balloon’s basket.
“Now if I’d have done it wrong we’d have gotten wet to our ankles,” Perkins said. “And that’s called a ‘dunk and soak.'”
After a serene 90-minute ride, Perkins began scanning the ground for an ideal landing spot. All along, a blue pickup truck being driven by Michelle and the rest of the chase crew had kept the balloon in sight and navigated winding country roads to keep up with our snail’s pace.
Instructing us to bend our knees slightly and hang on tight, Perkins initiated the descent into a field of briers and thistles along County Road 172.
“Every balloon landing is a crash landing,” he warned, just as the contraption made contact with the land. We bounced three or four times before coming to a perfect stop, the corn surrounding us once again looking tall from our position back on earth.
We had floated only 4.38 miles, but it felt like a world away. Our average speed was 2.8 mph, and we had reached a maximum speed of 12.6 mph.
The homeowner whose field we landed in, Courtney Dutcher, came outside with her excited young son, Cole, to take pictures of our arrival.
In an incredible twist of fate, I watched as Michelle got out of the truck and embraced Dutcher. It turns out the two had worked together for eight years at a local dentist’s office and were being reunited in the most unlikely of settings.
As we exited the basket for solid ground, the crew expertly wound the 120,000-cubic-foot “Painted Sky” into a bag the size of a TV. Then they graciously drove us back to the BalloonFest grounds. There were hugs all around, and I went about my normal, grounded day.
BalloonFest continues today with paid rides beginning at 6:30 a.m. Events continue through 5 p.m. Sunday.
Visit flagcityballoonfest.com for a full schedule of events.