A Lot of Hot Air
SUN BEAU VALLEY FARM —Taking someone for their first flight in a hot air balloon, says pilot Lynee Bixler, is the best way to fly.
As the ground drops away in the balloon’s ascent, wide-eyed wonderment sets in. “It’s amazing to see the look on their face,” says the slight, crisp Bixler.
An FAA-licensed balloon pilot of nearly 10 years, she is drawn to the sport for its quiet peace and simplicity. While some experienced balloonists enjoy the challenge of competition, Bixler, 43, prefers family-friendly events that offer the chance to mix with other balloon enthusiasts.
“There’s nothing competitive about me,” she says.
Despite her claim, Bixler holds her own in giving as good as she gets from her fellow pilots, feistily teasing that women have an advantage in the sport.
“We just have that special touch, and our egos aren’t quite so big.
There’s a problem when your ego’s bigger than your balloon,” she jokes with a male pilot. He rejoins by saying Bixler “has enough hot air” to lift her up, anyway.
“Well, that I may have a lot of,” she laughs.
At an annual hot air balloon festival in Ravenna, the easy-going Bixler glances somewhat anxiously toward the calm, blue sky. Too calm. She and more than 20 others are receiving a standard pilots’ briefing before taking off with their passengers into the clear September air. As weather conditions at various altitudes are listed off, the pilots are warned of the relative paucity of winds that would normally allow lengthier flights:
“So, let’s get ‘em up, get ‘em down. Safe takeoff. Your crew should clear you and get you off the ground.” Prior to the briefing, a small, black helium balloon, known as a pibal, is released into the air to test weather conditions.
“With all the information we get from Lockheed Martin, that helium balloon is going to give us more information than comes off a computer,” Bixler explains as the pibal wafts upward. “It will show us exactly where we’re going, and basically what speed we’re going. I’m hoping they get us in the air pretty quickly, so what wind is there, we can take advantage of.”
The small group of pilots disbands, and Bixler strides purposefully with her crew and two passengers across a grassy field toward her balloon, which lies on its side, airless but with the potential when filled to stand seven stories high.
“The crew has done the hard work already,” says Bixler. “They’ve put the balloon together and stretched out the envelope, which is the fabric part of the balloon.”
She points to her own turquoise, royal-blue and lime-green balloon to distinguish it from other, colorful splotches dotting the field at the Balloon A-Fair event.
“It’s amazing how lime green was never a favorite color, but the things I have acquired in that color because of the balloon. I have duct tape in lime green, because that’s what color the balloon is,” she says as she nears the site.
Upon reaching her balloon, dubbed the Sublime, having fully shifted from jovial to pilot mode, Bixler instructs the crew. “David, I’d like you to do the crown. Lisa and Ron, can you do the mouth? And, Don, can you do the fan for me?”
She sets to work alongside a handful of crew members, several of whom have volunteered to help after catching the flying bug from prior flights with Bixler. Together, they move with industrious speed, enthusiasm and focus in prepping the Sublime for take-off. Within 10 minutes, the balloon and its passengers are airborne.
For the crew, the work continues.
As Bixler and her two passengers begin to float above fields, tree lines and small-town streets, they pile into the chase vehicle to which the balloon trailer is fastened.
David, Bixler’s husband, is driving. Craning their necks through open windows, crew members strain to look up, tracking the Sublime’s progress as it looms overhead on the breeze.
“Our goal is to get to where she’s landing before she does,” says a ground crew member in the back seat of the chase vehicle. “Anticipate every move.” What do they do if the Sublime lands in someone’s front yard?
“You go to landowners and ask for permission,” David explains. “Usually, 99 percent of the time, they’re fine with it. The 1 percent, again, you have the right to land an aircraft: They have the right to charge you with trespassing; but, most of the people are very friendly and enjoy having you land. The people that get the most concerned are those that own animals, because you’ll spook them. Families with kids just love it.”
He looks into the sky, interrupting himself.
“We’re way out ahead of them now,” David says, pulling over to the side of the rural road. Pausing the vehicle for a moment, he notes a dog nearby. “And, a cop,” he comments wryly.
Although not smitten with the same passion for flying as his wife, David says their two sons, age 17 and 21, have been frequent passengers on balloon flights with their mom.
“They’ve been flying since they were little: They didn’t have that chance to get scared of heights,” David, who often crews on the Sublime, says. Nearby, floating in the sky above the tree line, the hot air balloon begins gently to drop lower.
Jumping out of the car, David and the crew run across a field toward its apparent landing destination.
Looking and sounding rather like a billowing, green-and-blue dragon, the Sublime descends in bursts as hot air released from the envelope gushes over the propane-fed flame that had given it lift.
“It was absolutely gorgeous,” a triumphant Bixler says as the wicker basket of the gondola floats a foot or two off the ground, led carefully by the crew down a dirt driveway to rest in the grass of a seemingly unoccupied home’s front yard.
Gathered again on the field of the original take-off site,having returned after deflating the envelope and packing the Sublime away to fly another day, Bixler and her crew celebrate. She expertly uncorks a bottle of champagne in the traditional ritual that marks the end of a safe flight in a hot air balloon.
Raising plastic glasses filled with champagne against the backdrop of a day beginning to draw to a close, Bixler and the others share a toast while she recites a variation of the Balloonist’s Blessing:
The winds have welcomed you with softness
The sun has blessed you with its warmth
We have flown so high and so well
That God has joined us with our laughter
And placed us gently back
Into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
— Tess Wolfe is a freelance writer in Kent, Ohio, where her imagination takes flight. With a background in news journalism,
she also has been trained in the use of music therapy to help people