Touching the sky at Sky High Hot Air Balloon Festival at Callaway Gardens
PINE MOUNTAIN — Fire bursts just above your head and you can feel the heat. As you look out, everything on the ground gets smaller. You barely feel the motion — it’s almost like an elevator, but out in an open field.
The first time going up in a hot-air balloon is more serene that taking off in a plane, noted Chuck Norton, the “balloonmeister” in charge of activities at the 17th annual Sky High Hot Air Balloon Festival this past weekend at Callaway Gardens. The quiet — other than the few times the pilot activates the burner to keep the vehicle afloat — can make you forget that you’re floating far above the ground.
The colorful contraptions filled the sky as they raised and lowered attendees during the event. Flying a hot-air balloon is different than flying other aircraft — and they are considered aircraft and pilots have to be trained and meet federal regulations as they would for any other, Norton noted. The balloons don’t have devices to steer, they depend on the wind to get them from location to location, and knowing which way the winds are blowing is vital.
“This year, right now, has been a little challenging,” Norton said Saturday as pilots prepared their balloons for rides. “We’ve been trying to work through those issues, watching the radar, seeing what the weather is. Weather 75 to 100 miles away affects us. We have to be very careful how we’re dealing with that.”
Ultimately, Norton called off full flights Saturday, but tethered flights — where the balloons are anchored to the ground and go up about 50 feet — were on. The weather also delayed the start of the tethered flights about an hour. Hundreds of attendees waited in line to get their chance to go up on a balloon Saturday, even for just a few minutes.
“They (riders) love it,” Norton said. “You’re up there looking around. It’s like being on a tall building. It’s so peaceful.”
It takes a crew of several people to prepare each balloon for flight. They assemble the basket that riders will stand in, attach it to the envelope — the term for the nylon balloon — then use a large fan to blow air into the envelope to start inflating it. When enough air is in the balloon, the pilot starts using the onboard heater to send flames into the open interior of the envelope.
“It’s basic science, we heat that air and hot air rises,” Norton said. “And (pilots) get it up to temperatures that we have to follow (to control the ascent and descent of the balloon).”
Pilots also have to consider the weight of their load. When switching passengers, new passengers have to enter the balloon one at a time and at the same time as each departing passenger exits the basket to keep the weight consistent so the balloon doesn’t lift off too soon. Crewmembers also hold the balloon down to keep it from flying off.
All that planning and coordinating plays into the joy of the sport, Norton said.
“Ballooning is great,” he said. “Number one, it’s a family sport. We take care of one another. If somebody needs some equipment, whatever, vehicles — I’ve been to events where my vehicle’s tore up, and I get vehicles from people who say, ‘Take it, when you get your vehicle fixed, bring it back.’ So that’s a great thing.
“Also, just the fun of the sport — every flight is different. No two flights are the same, and it’s just a great time to be out and enjoying it, and it’s a lot of camaraderie. We just have a good time, and it takes several people to go out and have a good flight and have a great time. It’s just a wonderful thing to do.”
• Full Q&A with Chuck Norton, “balloonmeister”:
Daily News: Tell me about what you all are doing here.
Norton: … Every year, what we do, we come out here, we offer tethered balloon rides and we also offer flights. Every year we look at it, see what the weather is — we have a lot of guests that come out here and hopefully we can get these tasks off depending on the weather. This year, right now, has been a little challenging. We’ve been trying to work through those issues, watching the radar, seeing what the weather is. Weather 75 to 100 miles away affects us. We have to be very careful how we’re dealing with that. Right now, this afternoon (Saturday), due to the weather, all the storms around us, we’ve canceled our flights, but we’re going to try to do tether rides. That’s where the balloons are tied off and we go up about 50 feet in the air and we give our guests some rides.
Daily News: What’s so intriguing or enjoyable about hot-air balloons?
Norton: Ballooning is great. Number one, it’s a family sport. We take care of one another. If somebody needs some equipment, whatever, vehicles — I’ve been to events where my vehicle’s tore up, and I get vehicles from people who say, ‘Take it, when you get your vehicle fixed, bring it back.’ So that’s a great thing. Also, just the fun of the sport — every flight is different. No two flights are the same, and it’s just a great time to be out and enjoying it, and it’s a lot of camaraderie. We just have a good time, and it takes several people to go out and have a good flight and have a great time. It’s just a wonderful thing to do.
Daily News: What is involved in getting these balloons off the ground?
Norton: These are federal aircrafts. We go through the same training as any aircraft pilot would do — basic training. Then we branch off into the different classifications. Ours is hot-air balloons with airborne heaters. We have baskets we put together, assemble those baskets — all those are a little different depending on the manufacturer — and we have an envelope (the actual nylon balloon) that we attach it to. We have an inflator fan we blow cold air into (the balloon), fill it up with air, and then we heat that air. It’s basic science, we heat that air, hot air rises — and get it up to temperatures that we have to follow.
Daily News: What is the general reaction when you bring someone up in a hot-air balloon for the first time?
Norton: They love it. … You’re up there looking around. It’s like being on a tall building looking around. It’s so peaceful. It’s not like being on an airplane ride or anything else where it’s bumpy or you hear a lot of noise. All you hear is the burner when you hit the burner, and that’s it. It’s just a peaceful, easy feeling when you’re out there flying around. It’s a real stress reliever for me. I really enjoy it. …
Daily News: What is your title?
Norton: I’m the ballonmeister here. I’m over all the balloon activities. We have a waiver and I have to make sure these guys are meeting all the requirements of that waiver and meeting all the requirements of the FARs — federal (acquisition) regulations. So we check in and make sure all of that happens, and during the event you see me give the briefings to all the pilots and what’s going on, and review the weather and all the requirements of the event itself and what they have to do. Of course, all of the pilots, if they feel sometimes that they can’t perform their duties, it’s up to them to call if off. And they do a real good job. These are real seasoned guys that do a real good job for us.
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