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Extreme air: A peaceful ride in a hot air balloon
A hot air balloon from the Parrot Head team ascends over the tree tops during the 37th annual Helen to the Atlantic Hot Air Balloon Race on June 4. The event draws about two dozen balloon teams and thousands of spectators. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
About this series
Summer has given us the travel bug. But rather than explore the mountains or cross the pond to Europe, we thought about people who just head up in the air any way they can. Throughout June, we’ll be exploring extreme ways to take flight, whether it’s by jumping out of a plane or skimming across the water behind a boat. Hopefully, we’ll give your own summer travels a lift at the same time.

Helen — The wind was barely moving the morning of June 4, but the fog had set in over the mountains.

Perfect for a short but beautiful morning ride in a hot air balloon during the second day of the 37th annual Helen to the Atlanta hot air balloon race.

Cleveland resident Bill Thomas filled his balloon around 7 that morning with the help from his Parrot Head hot air balloon team, which included his wife, Becky Thomas, who serves as the crew chief; granddaughter, Morgan Rylee, 11; nephew Logan Thomas; and friends Craig McDonald and Randy and Debbie Espy.

The balloon gently lifted its basket off the dew-covered grass, and would travel to about 1,000 feet above downtown Helen.

"It’s really not going to be a long flight; there is fog in the valley," Bill Thomas said. "I encountered that yesterday and I don’t want to do that again."

The Parrot Head team was one of nearly two dozen hot air balloon enthusiasts who gathered for the annual hot air balloon festival in the Bavarian-themed town.

Compared with skydiving or flying an airplane, hot air ballooning is a much quieter way to travel through the air. Nevertheless, traveling with a team and firing up a balloon is still pretty extreme, and the event attracts about 1,000 spectators a day to watch the colorful balloons float over the town.

An event like the one held recently in Helen, where balloon enthusiasts travel from across the region, gets an early start each day.

First, the pilots had to meet and decide whether their balloons would even lift off. On this particular morning, rain wasn’t the issue — it was fog.

"The guys let off something called a pi ball, a little helium balloon," said 21-year flying veteran Jim Lynch, from Ocala, Fla. "The wind seems to be going down the valley very slow."

The pilots watch the small balloon float down the valley to see wind speed and direction. Catherine Cleiman, general manager of the Helendorf River Inn, has been helping organize the annual balloon race since she was a child and her parents ran the hotel.

Annual sponsors of the invitation-only event include Tarp Head — also called the balloonmeister — the Helendorf River Inn and Earl Miller, from Indian Pass, Fla.

"It’s just such a fun event," Miller said. "When we started up here all these children were toddlers and babies ... so it’s been a family gathering. We all come back every year and even the kids are here now. They’ve all grown up together and have had a great time here."

The camaraderie of the balloon teams is clear during preparations to fly, and team members lend a hand to other teams as well.

Cleiman said once all the crews get the balloon envelope connected to the basket with lots of ropes and safety lines, it’s time to start blowing up the balloon.

"They will blow the envelope up with a ton of cold air so that the fabric is pretty taut," she said. "Then they add heat to it and as the air inside of it warms up, of course heat rises and the burners put out a huge amount of BTUs."

The whir of the burners release 17 million BTUs into the envelope, while the heat makes those watching nearby feel as if they had a sunburn.

"That’s after you release both triggers," said Thomas, about the output of his four tanks of propane on board.

Thomas considers his flying style conservative, since he has been a licensed pilot for about a year.

"I’ve only been a licensed pilot for a year but I’ve been flying for eight," he said. "I’ve flown in France, Germany, Luxembourg, Albuquerque, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina."

The process of getting licensed to pilot a hot air balloon is similar to flying a plane, because it requires hours of training with a certified instructor.

"You have to have a certain number of hours ground training," he said. "You have to have a certain number of hours in the air with a certified instructor. Then you have to take a written exam with the FAA, just like an airplane because it’s a registered aircraft. Then you have to take a flight test with a certified FAA flight inspector."

Thomas typically flies about four races a year, including the Helen race.

"I’m getting close to retirement so next year I’ll probably fly a few more and we are going to Albuquerque, N.M. this year," said Thomas, who added that the Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico is the biggest hot air balloon event in the country and runs for nine days.

That also makes for an expensive week of ballooning.

"If you are buying a new set-up, you are probably looking at $75,000," said Thom Wright, a pilot from Albuquerque. "Typically it costs about $300 a hour to fly if you think about depreciation of the balloon, the vehicles, insurances, expenses."

Wright also said depending on the work involved in creating the balloon, it also has an effect on cost.

"You can have a cow, house or a shoe," he said of the various balloon shapes. "It depends on what it takes and how complex it is to make; $100,000 to $150,000 isn’t unheard of."

Ballooning’s expense can be tremendous, but so is the experience.

Just as gently as the Parrot Head team’s balloon ascended into the air, it descended toward an unassuming parking lot around an hour later. Thomas threw a rope over the side and talked to his crew chief over the radio to decide on a perfect landing spot.

The balloon quietly eased down to its resting place.

Then it was time for a ballooning tradition — cocktails to celebrate another successful hot air balloon flight that didn’t end in power lines or trees limbs.