By Claudia O’Brien • Photos by Steve Floethe
I don’t like to look down. I choose bottom bunks, one-step kitchen stools, and orchestra seating in order to avoid going up any higher than I have to. So, even though I had wondered from time to time what it would be like to take a hot air balloon ride, my height anxiety always trumped my curiosity.
However, when I saw the beautiful balloon on the cover of a recent Lake & Sumter Style, I thought, You know, that doesn’t look all that scary.
I called David Cimini, the proprietor of Hot Air Balloon Tours in Lake County to tell him I would like to take a ride in his balloon — and perhaps write a story about the experience. I also mentioned my anxiety about heights and he said that lots of people experience the same thing.
“Once the flight begins,” he assured me, “their fears almost always disappear.”
Ignoring the word “almost,” I made arrangements for an upcoming flight. My husband/photographer Steve Floethe, would come along to take photos for the story, as well as provide some moral support.
The sky was still a purple-ebony as we followed our written-down directions to the property, near Howey-In-The-Hills, where our adventure would begin.
We could hear voices and see some faint lights out in the deepest darkness near the middle of the large field. As Steve unloaded the camera gear, I walked out to say hello to our fellow passengers. I introduced myself to Donna and Rick Jordan of Eustis, who told me that this was their first hot air balloon ride, too.
It was Rick’s 46th birthday and Donna had surprised him with this special gift. They were both excited about the flight. I was, too, I told them, just a “tiny” bit anxious about the height thing.
Rick had brought along his small digital camera. He owns his own lawn and garden business and says he enjoys taking photos of unusual flora and fauna when he’s out in the field. He was looking forward to recording today’s adventure.
‘Safer Than The Car Ride’
Then I met our pilot, David. I knew from our phone conversation that he’s been involved with hot air ballooning for nearly three decades. He started back in the ‘70s as a member of chase crews. He decided he liked it so much that he took lessons to become a pilot, bought his own balloon, and earned his FAA certification to carry passengers. He has a perfect safety record.
I had been reading up on hot air ballooning in general and knew, on my most rational level, that with an experienced pilot like David the risk of something unpleasant happening was exceptionally low.
“It’s hundreds of times safer than the car ride to get here,” I told my churning stomach. (Those who have experienced this sort of illogical fear will understand, however, that talking to your body parts doesn’t do much good.)
Flights typically take place just after sunrise in the morning or just prior to sunset in the late afternoon — when the winds are just right.
David tries to fly every morning, weather permitting. The night before, he checks the early weather forecast with the FAA and calls his passengers to confirm their flights. He checks again early the next morning, in time to notify the passengers at home if things have changed and the weather isn’t suitable.
“I don’t take passengers up if the wind is over eight miles per hour,” says David. “Safety is always the most important consideration.”
A typical flight lasts about an hour. Depending on the wind, it can cover from three or four miles up to ten or fifteen. The flight’s altitudes usually range between 1,500 and 2,000 feet. David says he never takes passengers higher than 3,000 feet.
Steve and I would take turns riding in the basket. There wasn’t room for both of us and the camera gear in there with three other people, so I would go up first and Steve would take his first shots from the ground. Then he would ride in the chase vehicle with David’s wife, Lisa, and the crew. David and Lisa were in constant contact via hand-held radios, so even when she and the crew couldn’t see the balloon, David could communicate our location. Steve and I would switch places at some point, when David found a safe landing spot.
We watched as pilot and crew readied the basket and stretched out the balloon for inflation. David asked Rick if he would like to help with the preparations and he enthusiastically said he would.
“I always ask passengers if they would like to participate and 90 percent want to,” explains David. “There’s no obligation, though. It’s entirely up to the individual.”
The bright purple, gold, and green rip-stop nylon envelope was stretched out along the ground. Down here, before inflation, it measured 80 feet. Picture a seven- or eight-story building lying on its side. Up there, filled with 90,000 cubic feet of air, it would be a couple of feet shorter.
David positioned an industrial-strength fan to blow air into the balloon’s neck, and Rich was stationed behind the fan to hold it in place.
David explains that the goal at this stage is to “maximize cold inflation” with unheated air before the propane-heated air is blown in.
After just a few minutes, the balloon billowed with the unheated air from the fan. The next step was to blow in the hot air generated by the propane burners, located a foot or two above us when we stood in the basket. As the heated air was blown into the balloon’s interior, the light-bulb shaped envelope slowly lifted itself toward an upright position. David added more bursts of heated air until it was totally vertical.
Rick, Donna, and I climbed, in turn, into the wicker gondola. It was easier than I thought it would be, actually. You put one foot in an opening near the bottom of the basket’s front and throw your other leg up and over its rim, sort of like getting on a horse. With a little help, you’re quickly inside.
David and Lisa’s teenage son, David, Jr., was a member of that morning’s crew. His job was to hold the crown line to steady the basket until liftoff. When it was time for launch, David Jr. handed over the line to his father, which David Sr. secured to the basket.
As we lifted off, I looked out at Steve and bravely waved a clammy hand at the camera.
‘More Than Peaceful’
We ascended quickly and were soon high over the field, drifting westward. David explained that although a pilot can control the altitude of the balloon’s flight by turning on the propane burners in short bursts (the more heated air, the higher we would go), he had little control over the direction. The winds pretty much decided that.
At that particular moment, it seemed the winds had decided to send us toward a stand of tall pine trees. As the soft branches gently whisked our basket, all my misgivings melted away. Maybe it was the simple joy of seeing the tippy tops of tall pine trees for the first time. Maybe it was the awesome softness of our tree-top encounter. But right then, up there — between the wispy clouds and the verdant landscape — I felt totally secure, as though hanging in a basket in the summer morning sky was something I did all the time.
In those almost-giddy moments, I understood an important part of the magic of hot air ballooning. You have the above-it-all perspective, but you’re low enough and going slowly enough to really see things. It’s sort of like having a backstage pass to a sold-out show. You feel privileged.
David had been right. Now relaxed, I began to enjoy the scenery.
The beauty of the Central Florida countryside spread out all around us. It had rained during the night and fog was nestling in the low places. Tidy farms with perfectly fenced paddocks and long rows of citrus in neighboring groves flanked one another in geometric complement. You can’t really see that at ground level.
We drifted over horses and cows in their fields and birds feeding near small bodies of water. We saw the balloon’s reflection as we drifted over a larger pond and we waved back to drivers who were waving at us.
It was more than peaceful — it was totally serene — and I wished I could have stayed up there all morning.
After 25 or 30 minutes, though, David began looking for a good place to land so Steve and I could switch places. Meanwhile, Lisa, in the chase vehicle, was telling David that they had lost sight of us. They talked back and forth, using highways as reference points.
David explained that one of the considerations in deciding where to land is to pick a spot the chase vehicle can easily access. He chose a large, grassy pasture, near a good roadway.
Our landing was as gentle as our liftoff.
‘Gently Back Again’
I was soon waving goodbye to Steve again, from the ground this time, and watched as the balloon quickly ascended.
Riding in the chase vehicle with Lisa and the crew provided a different perspective. We lost sight of the balloon very quickly and I realized that without the radios for constant communication, locating the balloon’s landing spot could be a real problem.
David and Lisa continued to talk back and forth via radio throughout the flight. They discussed some possibilities for landing — wide fields similar to the one in which we had put down earlier.
However, the wind started dying down rapidly and David said he needed to find a safe landing place right away. He spotted a residential neighborhood just ahead and communicated the location.
As the balloon drifted low over the houses and yards in the subdivision, David used the propane burners to increase altitude in order to maneuver to a clear area.
By the time we arrived in the chase vehicle, the balloon had already put down on a quiet, curvy road in the community, Highland Lakes in south Leesburg. David and his passengers were posing for neighbors who wanted to take their pictures.
The residents were exchanging stories with one another about their surprise at seeing a hot air balloon landing in their neighborhood on this quiet Saturday morning. Several talked about hearing the whoosh of the propane burners — “It was such an alien sound,” one explained — and running outside to see what was making the strange noise.
One woman, who walks every morning, had not seen the balloon come down and was quite surprised when she rounded a curb and saw it sitting in front of her house. One of her neighbors said that when she saw the balloon in the air over her house, she thought she was losing her mind. She laughingly added, “My husband always says he’s going to fly away somewhere. I thought he finally did.”
David says that he always tries his best to avoid putting the balloon down in residential neighborhoods, but again, passenger safety is always the deciding factor.
“The winds were dying down pretty quickly. I had to make sure we had a safe place to land,” he explains.
After the balloon was packed and loaded into the back of the chase vehicle and the basket was secured on its special lift, our entourage returned to the site of our early morning takeoff. It seemed so long ago that we had left this field, but only a couple of hours had actually passed.
As we stood and chatted about our morning’s adventure, David poured orange juice and champagne into our glasses for the traditional after-flight toast. And, as we raised the flutes, he recited the balloonist’s blessing:
The winds have welcomed you with softness.
The sun has blessed you with his warm hands.
You flew so high and so well
That God joined you in your laughter
And set you gently back again —
Into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
I spoke with Rick Jordan a couple of weeks after our flight. He had said he would be glad to share the photos he took that morning and I wanted to give him the information to send them. I asked how he and his wife had felt about their ride.
“It’s absolutely one of the best things we’ve ever done,” he said. “We tell everyone about it!”
I told Rick I felt the same way. Looking back on that morning, I remember the feeling of serenity up there most of all. And I’m ready to go up again.
Want To Know More?
Hot Air Balloon Tours offers early morning hot air balloon flights over Lake County daily, as weather permits. Their tours include traditional champagne flights, as well as customized flights for any special occasion. (Couples have become engaged in David’s balloon and many weddings have been performed.) Gift certificates can be purchased to present a loved one with an “Adventure of a Lifetime.” For more information, call 352-243-7865