Friday, August 22, 2008
sponsored by Jake's Furnishings

A spontaneous adventure

1st balloon flight and all the charm

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[August 22, 2008]  The balloon is slowly rising, the sound of the burner hissing above us. It doesn't occur to me at first that I need to get home, that I haven't had supper, haven't talked to my husband more than two minutes, haven't asked my kids how their first day of school went. I'm flying. The rest of the world can wait.

InsuranceI hadn't planned on this flight. I came to the empty lot at the corner of Woodlawn and Union to get a few quotes from the pilots for LDN. Because I was running late, I caught them just as they were beginning to inflate ... bad time to catch balloon pilots. Don't get me wrong, they're polite, but they just don't have time to answer any questions.

So, having no one to interview, I grab the side of an inflating balloon in an attempt to help. My job is soon obsolete and, as I release my hold, I hear my name ... Jim Phelan is shouting for me to come over to another balloon that is inflated and ready to take off.

"Jump in," he orders. I jump. Well, climb. Seth Goodman gets in as well. He's young. He really could jump in if he wanted to but, not wanting to embarrass me, he climbs in. I like him already. Our pilot is Randy Conklen, who has been flying since 1998, and we're in Good Greeph, the balloon named after the owners, the Greens and the Phelans.


The pilots have just returned from a balloon fair in Centralia and have flown almost every day the last five days. They appear to be flying tonight for no special reason ... just for love of the sport. Jim Phelan later tells me he's usually the instigator of these flights.

"We're going to do a 'splash-n-dash'," explains Randy. "That's when you drop to the surface of a body of water and touch just enough to get the bottom of the basket wet, then you lift again." I'm a little nervous about that, but I'm sure he didn't notice. "It's OK," he says in a reassuring way. OK, he noticed.

I get out my notebook, a professional to the end. "Tell me about Centralia. Did you do well in the competitions?"

Randy smiles. "We had a fly-in one day and thought we had chosen a good place to launch, but when we went to set up, the winds had changed and we were too far south. We had already started to unload, and we really should have packed up and moved north. Problem was we were at a home for developmentally disabled children. They were all excited about seeing the balloon, so I got on the phone and told Jim, 'We're too far south, but we're not moving.' He understood. Those kids really loved watching the balloon go up. That's what it's all about."

I look ahead, still a little worried about the splash-n-dash. Fortunately, the two balloons ahead of us have gone too far north of the pond. They won't be taking a dip. Unfortunately, we don't seem to be using the same wind they are. We're headed right for it. Seth and Randy seem inexplicably happy about this.

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As we near the pond, we see a family with a small boy parked to watch the flight. The boy calls to us, waving wildly. I wave back and take a picture.

Since Randy has completely ignored my advice about dangers of dipping a basket full of people into a pond, we are descending steadily as we pass above our spectators. They, too, seem oblivious to our plight.

As we near the center of the pond, I glance over the side of the basket, watching the water rush at us. Well, "rush" is a strong word. As it turns out, Randy is an exceptionally skilled pilot who really can touch the base of the basket to the water and immediately ascend. My feet don't even get wet. Hmmm ... splash-n-dash. I'm beginning to see the sport here.

The rest of the flight is spent in relaxation. We look for wildlife around Kickapoo Creek, but nothing is stirring. The setting sun is warm on our skin with no breeze to cool us since we are traveling with the wind.

We try to set down in a small area near the Phelan home, but the winds do not cooperate. We are forced to put it down in a much less hospitable ditch beside a country road. The crew is skilled and work well together.


When all is packed away, Phelan decides, "We're going back to our house. Come on."

I jump into the pickup with Chug Hubrick, who is also a pilot and crew member. He echoes what I've heard from every pilot I've talked to. Crewing is as much fun as flying. There's an element of challenge in it that appeals to them. A hint of pride creeps into Chug's voice as he tells about his daughter, Jenna, another pilot, who has been crewing since she was 4 years old.

So now we're sitting on the deck in the backyard. A bottle of champagne sits open on the table to celebrate my first flight. The camaraderie is intoxicating. The atmosphere is almost as peaceful as that on the flight. The owners' attraction to tranquillity is profoundly evident. As we raise our glasses, the Phelans lift up the "Balloonist's Prayer":

The winds welcome you with softness. The sun welcomes you with warm hands. May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in your laughter and sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.



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