Romancing the wind

Friday, August 15, 2003

A light morning mist caresses a covey of homes below, freshening the yet-undisturbed day. Whisper-soft gold ribbons brushed by an unseen watercolorist rise from the eastern horizon. The day breaks.

Sparrows begin to twitter as the sun plays peek-a-boo among the gently fluttering leaves.

A small, dark window brightens. Then another light. The faintest whiff of coffee.

A dog barks, coaxing the neighboring canine to chime in. A car shifts into gear. The quietude is broken.

As Plano -- proclaimed the "Hot-Air Balloon Capital of Texas" by Texas Legislature -- begins to awaken, a balloonist already has found peace with the day.

Allure of the wind

The beautiful simplicity of a hot air balloon -- the world's first aviation device -- still captivates the human imagination more than 200 years after its inception.

According to balloon pilot Dana England Conklin, balloonists are more popular than the ice cream man. The colorful craft attract bug-eyed kids, she says -- and she ought to know.

When Conklin was 9 or 10 years old, she and her parents would hop in the family car and follow the crayon-bright bulbs that occasionally floated above Plano. It was an unusual sight, and curiosity was the best excuse for finding fun.

Conklin, a 1988 graduate of North Texas State University, never dreamed she would get closer to the balloons than gazing distance from a car window.

Today, however, she and her husband are the pilots of Too Cool, a bold, sunglasses-wearing balloon seven stories high. The balloon regularly appears in the annual Plano Balloon Festival, scheduled for Sept. 19-21 this year.

In nature's hands

Conklin respects the challenge of working with natural elements.

"I think it's a lot easier to point something with an engine and make it go than having to work with nature to get somewhere," she says. "I prefer working with the wind, the sky, the sunrise, the sunset and Mother Earth."

Monitoring the weather, therefore, is an addiction. The Weather Channel becomes more popular than ESPN, says Conklin, who categorizes days as "flyable" or "unflyable." She even catches herself second-guessing the meteorologist.

"Look out the window," Conklin instructs her television set. "Do you see those clouds over there?"

Balloonists also develop the habit of being constantly on the watch for very slight indicators of air movement. A fluttering flag is a good indication of a flyable day, but days when flags are flapping are unflyable. Leaves and smoke are clear wind gauges, too. And if the trashcan is rolling down the street, balloonists don't even think about going up.

But when blue skies and gentle breezes beckon, life gets planned around ballooning.

The launch

On a recent Sunday, Conklin's fellow North Texas alumna, Jill Johnson Shafer, and her family and crew pulled their candy-cane-striped balloon, Jubilee, out of the garage. They fueled it with propane and embarked on an impromptu outing.

The preparation Shafer and other pilots go through is a spectator sport in itself.

An open field, a school yard or a baseball diamond make excellent launching points. However, since balloons go where the winds take them, pilots can't simply turn around and fly home when they are ready. They need crew members for liftoff and to get back to the launch site.

A three- to six-person crew helps the pilot attach the burner system to a 350-pound wicker basket. Then they attach the balloon envelope or fabric. The crew unpacks its 200-pound bag and drags it across the field downwind, leaving behind a nylon trail of colorful tracksuit material.

Someone cranks up a fan with some oomph, and the fabric begins a slow belly dance. Its body ripples gracefully in response to the cool air -- swirling, swelling and billowing. As it reaches the right plumpness, the pilot blasts the burner flame into the mouth of the envelope. The heated balloon gracefully balances itself in an upright posture, fully inflated.

The crew holds the basket until the pilot and passengers are on board. With thumbs up, the pilot fires a steady flame from the burner. The balloon and the wind embrace each other, and the choreography becomes airborne.

The flight

Ballooning is a moment-to-moment improvisation. The wind is in control, guiding the movement, direction and speed of the craft. Yet passengers in the basket of the balloon experience little or no sensation of movement -- not even the wind kissing their cheek. There is a healthy dose of serenity.

"We go where there's fun and beautiful flying," says Shafer, a 1976 North Texas graduate.

Her most memorable flights have been in the mountains in Angel Fire, N.M., and Anchorage, Alaska. It was summer when she was in Alaska, and her midnight flight gave her a glimpse of the sun setting behind the peak of Mount McKinley -- North America's highest mountain.

"It was just spectacular," she says. "Unbelievable."

Shafer also enjoys just going out with her family in Plano, participating in balloon rallies and taking up first-time flyers.

First-timers in the basket of a hot air balloon are often pilots' favorite passengers. Pilots enjoy seeing the wonder on the faces of newbies and watching them realize what balloonists already have discovered -- common structures and landmarks seen every day at street level take on new beauty from above.

The fluorescent blue of backyard swimming pools. The architectural element of crisscrossing roadways. The childlike playfulness of Hot Wheel-sized cars. And sometimes, just sometimes, the faintest hint of the Fort Worth skyline.

The landing

The entire time the balloon is in the air, crew members are eyeballing it from a chase vehicle -- a pickup truck, van or car with an equipment trailer -- prominently stickered with "caution-sudden-stop" decals.

It's not unusual for pilots to radio crew members -- the grounded adventurers -- to notify them of a last-minute change in the intended landing site. Pilots may have to bypass an elementary schoolyard full of students, a field of zigzagging power lines or a parking lot full of balloon-eating light poles in order to land safely.

The purpose of the decals becomes apparent. "Do we turn left? Do we go right? Does a road actually get there?"

But once the pilot selects an appropriate landing space, the ground crew requests landowner permission for the pilot to land. As the pilot and passengers flex their knees slightly in anticipation of a soft landing, the crew awaits them.

After hugging the air out of the envelope and packing it safely away, an elated bunch retrace their steps home.

Don't worry. Be happy

Acrophobics may doubt they'd ever jump into a hot air balloon. But even pilots are sometimes afraid of heights.

Shafer describes her nose as the one stuck in the door of a glass elevator -- last one on, first one off-- and never pressed against windows of any floor above third. Plus, she won't be caught on tall bridges. Yet, the sensation is different in a balloon, she says.

Pilot Sandy Graf, who is afraid of elevators, cliffs and skyscrapers, once asked a psychiatrist passenger in the basket of her balloon, Up or Down, how someone afraid of heights could enjoy ballooning.

She learned that, as the pilot, firing the burner to ascend and venting the balloon to descend give her a sense of control. Others find security in feeling no movement as they drift with the wind. The basket becomes a safe haven.

"I've flown people afraid of heights who were hanging over the side of the basket enjoying themselves by the end of the flight," says Graf, who graduated from North Texas last year.

Kindred spirits

Graf, who plans to fly Up or Down in this year's Plano Balloon Festival, was 12 years old when she saw her first globed silhouette against a blue Iowa sky. Flying a balloon became her lifelong dream.

Although a love of flying brings balloon enthusiasts together, a sense of community and camaraderie unites them. They each have their life stories. Conklin coordinates marketing and special events. Shafer is a teacher. Graf flies balloons for a living. They know other balloonists who are librarians, doctors, accountants, CEOs -- people from every walk of life.

"Once you talk to them and know them, they're family," says Graf.

The pastime even has its sentimental moments. Crew members fall in love and get married, as in the case of Conklin and Shafer and their husbands.

A graceful exit

Flying into the sunset, of course, is a romantic way to end an evening. The day cools. The winds calm. There are no pagers. No fuss.

Oranges and purples blend into blushing shadows. With a final wink, the fiery ball slips beneath the western horizon.

The balloon, like an exclamation point, punctuates a poetic sky.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108