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Media hot-air balloon flight takes off

By Patricia Rankin

[AUG. 22, 2003]  Twelve balloon pilots and their crews and several lucky media representatives gathered at the Holiday Inn Express to kick off the 15th annual Lincoln Balloon Festival Thursday night. With temperatures in the mid-90s and heat indexes nearing 105 degrees, pilots watched the skies and the weather channel for updates.

At 6:05 p.m., pilots and crews got the thumbs up to take adventuring media members, some flying for the first time, up into the sultry Lincoln skies.

Lincoln Daily News was assigned to ride in Sun Kissed, a 90,000-cubic-inch, double-burner balloon owned by New Hollander Randy Conklen. The crew of four whisked us away to a local lot in Chautauqua Commons for the preparation for our ascension.

The experienced crew included pilot Randy Conklen, Beth Green, Ross Green, who is also a licensed pilot, and 12-year-old Matt Waylon, who has had his own share of flying and crewing.

In two years, Matt will take his junior pilot's license, which ranks right up there with a driver's license. "I want both," he stated, as he and the crew prepared the gondola and situated the envelopes (balloon fabric) for inflation.

Matt worked alongside his crew with the precision of an old pro. He strapped the double burner onto the gondola and assisted the crew in securing the cord to the bars. Cheryl Frank also volunteered, sporting borrowed gloves and sweating alongside the rest of us.

While ballooning can get expensive -- new balloons run about $25 thousand to $30 thousand a pop (no pun intended) -- this crew balloons for fun, not profit. Ross Green, a marketing student at Western Illinois University, anchored himself to the top of the balloon while Conklen and Waylon ran the fan and the burners. Beth Green secured the velcroed top envelopes to the main fabric, allowing the balloon the fill with hot air. She explained that Conklen would release these once the ascent began, allowing the heated air to carry us.

These FAA certified pilots worked with speed and accuracy. Pilot Conklen and the LDN crew were off the ground by 6:21 p.m.


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The ascent was surprisingly gentle, as the winds coming from 220 degrees (south-southwest, as us lay folk say) nudged us gently upward. The warmth from the double burners contributed to the heat of the late afternoon but pleasantly carried us upward to the Lincoln skies.

At about 250 feet up, we picked up a gentle wind current that increased our speed to 14 miles per hour. At 600 feet, Lincoln looked like a model train town, neatly laid out by loving hands. The cornfields were perfectly lined, the kiddie pools were blue, and all seemed peaceful in the town.

Looking around the skies, we saw other balloons keeping their distance, hovering quietly near the descending sun on the western horizon.

The simple stillness of the flight was not unlike approaching God in his heavens.

As the pilot and passengers, ever connected by radio to our crew, searched for a spot to land just south of Lawndale, we were thankful once again to touch ground at 7:23 p.m. Conklen recited the balloonist's prayer, and we were safely returned to earth.

~ ~ ~

The Winds have welcomed you with softness.

The Sun has blessed you with its warm hands.

You have flown so high and so well,

that God has joined you in your laughter,

and set you gently back again

into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

~ ~ ~

[Patricia Rankin]

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