Rising Above It All

An unexpected birthday present leads to high-flying adventureGet Above It All in a Hot Air Balloon

By Ayanna Shields

Our kids gave us what? Well, I don’t know.”

That was the less-than-confident response of my wife, Syd, on learning that her 70th birthday present from our five offspring was something they knew we had never experienced in our half-century of marriage.

I was lavish in my encouragement, with statements such as “Honey, hot-air balloons are perfectly safe, they’re beautiful and you’re gonna love it!”

She still was a bit reluctant, but Syd gave me the go-ahead to call for the appointment.

We were to learn that their cautionary custom is to take off early in the morning – very early. We also were to learn that weather conditions have to be “just right” for ballooning. On the morning of our appointment, we were roused from sleep long before our usual “getting up” time with the news that an unexpected and unfavorable “front” was threatening. An alternate date was set.

The second time around, the weather cooperated. We drove the 60 miles from our home in South Georgia to the appointed location in east Tallahassee, where we rendezvoused with our pilot, Mark Fritze, owner of Tropical Breezes Ballooning Company, and a third passenger, a delightful young lady from Alabama.

In addition to our beautiful craft, Second Wind, we were joined by two others with their passengers and crew, Hemisphere Dancer and Tracer. After a few dozen questions and the sending up of several tiny balloons to check air currents, the small convoy traveled to the liftoff location several miles away.

All passengers excitedly assisted in the elaborate inflating procedure, and then it was up, up and away.

There was no fear attached to the expectation, but I had anticipated an unpleasant “dangling” feeling. This didn’t happen. “Smooth as glass” and “like floating on a cloud” were the types of statements liberally exchanged. Care and stress seemed to slip away as we gently soared over forests and rooftops, seeking a glimpse of wild boar, deer and other woodland creatures.

The most exciting part of the trip was the unexpected brushing of the lofty pines. We encountered some sort of unusual downdraft that Mark described as “a waterfall in the air.” He expertly and efficiently added several blasts of hot air into the balloon to halt the descent. In a spirit of frivolity, we brushed the pine straw from our hair, and the women gathered the tiny pine cones from the floor of the basket for souvenirs and Christmas decorations.

Once we had landed gently and softly, Mark answered another question: “What’s the significance of the rubber chicken hanging in the basket?”

Smiling broadly, he explained that a century and a half ago, before anyone had flown in a balloon, survival was suspect. It was decided that small animals – chickens, ducks, etc. – would go aloft first. If they survived, then humans would take the plunge, or perhaps it’s better said that they would throw caution to the winds.

To round out the morning’s splendid adventure, all pilots and passengers gathered to toast the occasion with champagne and to share cheese and crackers. This too, Mark explained, had its origin in ancient lore. When the earliest balloonists flew over rural areas, the farmers had no idea what they were – demons, perhaps? Often the armed landowners would display a more-than-hostile mood. The flyers quickly learned that the perfect crowd appeasement was a gift bottle of champagne.

To me, the entire scenario had been world-class. But driving home, I was curious to learn Syd’s true feelings.

“Given the opportunity, would you go up again?” I asked.

Her response: “In a New York minute!”


Up, Up and Away 

If you want to fly in a beautiful balloon, call Tropical Breezes Ballooning at (850) 386-6425. The price is $200 per person. Balloons can carry up to four people, depending on their weight. The experience lasts about 2 1/2 hours, including setup, finding a location and other preparations. You will spend about an hour in the air. Most rides are done at sunrise because of cool air and good weather conditions. Occasionally, an afternoon ride is possible in the fall and winter months.

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