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Balloonists and passengers enjoy evening flight over Lincoln's cornfields

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[August 23, 2013]  Lincoln Daily News photographer Lisa Ramlow joined the ranks of those who would not stay earthbound Thursday evening. It was a lovely August evening as she hopped into a balloon basket with pilot Betsy Kleiss and first-time passenger Jacki Pavlik. This was Ramlow's second ride, but you might have thought it her first from her enthusiasm.

Some shifty breezes bobbled the basket before liftoff, setting the newbie Pavlik a bit on edge. But on launch, the balloon quickly gained altitude and the trio sped away to the northwest. The mild evening allowed for the smoothest of flights, and for those in the Bottoms Up balloon, it was a perfect soft landing about 5 miles away as the crow flies.

Before the time to land, Kleiss got a feel for the wind direction at various altitudes. Coming over Kickapoo Creek at Nicholson Road, she started looking for a field to put down in.

Kleiss dropped down and the wind took her left, where she saw a cornfield with a washed-out area, a good spot.

"Being raised a farm girl, I like to be careful about crops," Kleiss said. She doesnít want any damage to the crop.

So, while husband, Mike, checked with the farmer, Betsy and passengers waited in the basket with the balloon still inflated.

The gentle laughter that comes only of camaraderie gained through a shared experience filtered through the field. Reflecting on her first flight with a look of joy, Pavlik said she was a little nervous at first when she tried to look straight down. It scared her to be so high.

"Then I learned to look out a way, and I began to see things, to look down on the corn ... and it wasn't so bad. Later, I could look down," she said.

Ramlow agreed it was a beautiful sight, and she, too, thoroughly enjoyed the flight.

Pilot Kleiss was raised in Seymour and her husband in Tuscola -- farm country. They live in Champaign now.

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Betsy said that Dave Reineke, who pilots the city of Lincoln balloon, brought her along in learning to fly. Her first year in Lincoln, 1996, she flew with Reineke, he as pilot in command, and the next year she had her pilotís license and her first balloon. In '98 she got her commercial license, and now Kleiss has about 580 hours of flight time.

"Safety is first," she says.

Pilots take every precaution, going through rituals and checklists before flights. Preflight includes weather briefings. While not required outside of controlled airspace, pilots commonly carry hand-held radios to listen for local traffic and to apprise one another of their locations. Equipment is carefully checked, baskets are examined, lines are checked to make sure they are secure and not tangled. One of the more important balloon devices are the carabiners. These are the latches that hold the lines between the basket and the envelope, locking the lines into the basket. The locks are checked carefully each flight.

Kleiss speaks fondly when naming her past balloons. There was Flambango, named by her daughter for its hot pink colors and difficulty saying the word flamingo when she was young; Hot Flash -- the name speaks for itself; and now thereís Bottoms Up with its black arrows pointing down from the top and up from the bottom.

Crewing for Kleiss were Bob and Paula Rutherford, of Chestnut, and Jamie Beard.

While the crew was wrapping up the balloon envelope, they began pushing themselves to a huffing stage. The envelope is quite large and heavy. It takes some manhandling, or woman handling, and a coordinated effort to re-contain it.

Betsy urged the group to take their time. "I donít want this to be work," she said. "I'm here to have fun and to be safe."

[By JAN YOUNGQUIST]

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