I 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
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
"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
"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
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.
[to top of second column]
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
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
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.
[By JO HILLIARD]