Unusual Attitudes: How I Became a Hot Air-o-naut

Ken Dubrowski

My balloon career launched modestly (sort of) when a delightful, brilliant, eccentric friend named Frank Wood decided he had to have a balloon for fun and to promote his rather outrageous WEBN radio station in Cincinnati. He built it and aired a classical music format until son Beau convinced him that wouldn't "fly" and they degenerated into hard, acid rock. But Frank, an avid pilot, had his way every Sunday morning from 8 until noon, and I'd hang out at the station in Hyde Park Square while he did his four hours of Bartok, Bach and Beethoven. We'd talk about airplanes, addictions, Graeter's vs. Aglemesis ice cream and the joy of living (Frank was a recovering addict and a cancer survivor) while he played music and took phone calls from adoring fans.

He told me he was bringing the balloon to a summer evening party in fashionable Indian Hill so the hosts could score a "first" by offering tethered balloon rides to guests.

"I'll teach you how to run it up and down on a tether and you can play with it as long as you want."

So of course I went, decked out in a strapless Lilly Pulitzer creation. Few women have less business wearing a strapless dress, but they were "in" and it was a time in life when that was important to me. The night was hot and humid and, well fortified with vodka martinis, I hitched up my skirts, climbed into the wicker basket and concentrated on Frank's instructions. Somebody caught the moment on film and, no, I'm not going to let the magazine publish it … arms stretched overhead, face beet-red and twisted in concentration and my Lilly frock down around my waist (underpinnings intact … just).

The FAA was unaware of my notorious balloon debut when it sent me on an all-expense-paid two-week trip to northern Colorado, at a spectacular place right on the Front Range. I would morph from an airplane pilot who couldn't spell Montgolfier to a full-blown, expert, commercial hot-air balloon aeronaut — or so the balloon community in southern Ohio was supposed to believe. Ballooning had "ballooned" in our district, and the nearest FAA inspector full of hot air (ratings) was in Chicago. That he was rarely if ever available for balloon events, surveillances or check rides should have rung a warning bell but, hey, if it's something that launches you into the air, I'm game to try it.

This mission was not without its challenges.

First, there's the altitude thing: Being at 3,000 or 8,000 feet in an airplane is home; being any higher than a couple hundred feet in a balloon basket is downright unnatural, something only a high ironworker might enjoy — an opinion my friend Joe Kittinger, who jumped out of one at 103,000 feet and flew another solo across the Atlantic, finds wildly funny. A course completion requirement was to take this thing to 3,000 feet agl, which I did, huddled in a fetal position on the basket floor, occasionally peering over the rim with one eye. When the little hand on the altimeter said "3" I vented at terminal velocity to the first available piece of Mother Earth, which happened to be inside the fence of a Colorado state penal facility.

Which raises the issue of direction. Sure, I know that balloons ride the wind, they're part of the wind, and getting somewhere specific (like not on the grounds of a prison) means changing altitudes in search of a layer where the winds are blowing the way you want to go … remembering they'll change again as you descend. Well, OK, I know that, but I have this innate pilot's conviction that you go pretty much in the direction you're pointed. But positioning yourself in the balloon basket and concentrating on the direction you want to go is useless because the damn thing rarely wants to go that way. Eventually I caught on to spitting over the side and shooting bursts of foam from cans of shaving cream to try "catching a left" below, or burning to climb to a layer where the wind would take me in a better direction — maybe even back around for another try.

Finally, there's the business of wrestling these things around on the ground. The Raven model (no longer built) weighed 300 pounds empty with two 15-gallon propane burners. It would lift up to eight people, which made it ideal for the tourist business but something of a challenge for a beginner. Laying it out and inflating and then — if you got down with most bones intact — deflating and packing it up at the end was formidable. We were starting out at an elevation 5,000 feet above sea level and, while I'm incredibly strong, 105 pounds goes only so far. Wimping out is not an option, especially with a crew of teenage girls, so I threw myself wholeheartedly into the task and then took myself to the Poudre Valley Hospital, certain that I'd torn every rib loose from my sternum. Several hours, X-rays and a bill for (can you believe) $90 later, I limped back to the motel with the assurance it was plain vanilla bruised ribs and sore muscles.

I was the lone student at this FAA-contracted "balloon school," which consisted of the guy who owned the balloon, his girlfriend and a volunteer crew of teenage girls. We'd launch at dawn from a downtown park and usually be packed up well before noon. I guess I was supposed to study balloon theory and read manuals, but this isn't exactly quantum physics. Besides, the Poudre River was in its spring thaw, and driving up into the mountains with fly fishermen out in those rushing waters provided an awesome sight. I visited Cheyenne and Laramie in Wyoming and stood knee-deep in snow at a lookout in Rocky Mountain National Park. Watching a simultaneous thunderstorm and snowstorm across the valley gave me a wholesome appreciation for the vagaries of mountain weather and mountain flying. I think I got another letter of reprimand for "unauthorized use of a government vehicle," but it was worth it.

Anyway, the weather turned sour after the first two mornings with a forecast to stay that way for several days. The balloon guy wanted to drive up into the mountains to drum up balloon business with several dude ranches and resorts for the summer. Did I want to go along?

I met him at the girlfriend's house, an A-frame just behind the first rise of the Front Range. The balloon trailer was sitting in the backyard, and a discussion about how to pay for the next propane delivery was a clue that the weather delay was probably fortuitous. We set off in his pickup and soon left paved roads, climbing to higher terrain where the snow was still pretty deep. Near Granby a sign said "Continental Divide, Elevation 12,700"; I saw beavers building dams, herds of deer and elk, tall firs and amazing mountain vistas. And the lodges where we stopped were exquisitely decorated and comfortable with stables and shooting ranges and heaven knows what else for affluent guests.

Later, on a remote stretch of gravel road, he asked if I was curious about the FAA inspectors who'd met us the first day. I supposed it was a routine surveillance, but he said the feds were harassing him because of complaints and accusations from other balloon examiners. They were trying to take his certificate and maybe I'd noticed that he was careful to show it but didn't hand it to them. I told him that no FAA inspector in my experience had the authority to physically confiscate a pilot certificate … period!

The conversation progressed (or degenerated) into the story of why he was involved in ballooning when most of his previous experience was in fixed wing and helicopters. Well, it seems he'd recently graduated from a federal prison where he served time for insurance fraud. (Note: The FAA suspends a pilot's medical certificate for a minimum of one year after the date of a felony conviction, but a balloon certificate requires no medical.)

"Well, gee," I gulped, "we all make mistakes. You just had some bad luck getting caught. Put it behind you and move on; you're doing fine."

The pickup was bumping along in what seemed like trackless wastes as he talked about the expense and hassle of going to Denver every week to see his parole officer plus the financial burden of alimony and child support from several failed marriages. I was holding up pretty well until he dropped a bomb about additional court-mandated visits to Denver he was making — something about sex abuse charges brought by a disgruntled teenage stepdaughter.

"You know," he said, "I have a real problem with government people."

Being a "government person" I was feeling uncomfortable, and it wasn't the ribs, the head cold or the altitude. But within a few miles we came to a paved highway and were soon headed downhill toward civilization. Maybe he just needed to vent, and I appreciated his candor, but it sure wasn't one of my warmest and fuzziest moments. When I got to the motel, I called my boss and asked what in the hell the FAA was thinking about to contract with this balloon school.

"So you want to drop out?" my understanding and solicitous manager asked.

"Of course not; I just want you to know where to look before claiming I'm AWOL if I don't come back."

In fairness, the balloonist was a magnificent aeronaut and a fine instructor. In the next week, he taught me every aspect of the art and science of hot-air balloons. We touched down lightly on mountain lakes and plucked boughs from fir trees as we rose up the slopes. I learned a lot and I liked him. He'd just taken a wrong turn.

In spite of the physical and emotional toll, I came back home a genuine commercial balloonist (hot air only) and worked with the balloon community in southern Ohio for some years. But in truth, I never really got my arms around ballooning or balloonists — well, except for Colonel Joe, of course. I'll put my arms around Joe Kittinger every chance I get.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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