gamut (2005-38)

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Fair-weather Rainbows

Hot-air balloons inf late Pellissippi's reputation

Fair-weather Rainbows

by Paige M. Travis

Something odd catches your eye: there, in the sky, near the horizon. It’s a rare sight in the East Tennessee firmament, like an endangered bird or a UFO. On uneventful weekends, hot-air balloons can appear in ones and twos in the rural areas surrounding Knoxville, their bright colors in high-definition contrast against the sky. But this weekend they’ll flock like bright fowl to the lush grounds of the Pellissippi State campus for a now-annual rally that’s getting a rise out of locals.

For several years, the rolling hills that are home to the West Knox County community college were known by some community members as “the place where they fly hot-air balloons.” That reputation, however mistaken, actually brought about the festival.

Julia Wood of the school’s community-relations department, explains that, years ago, WOKI FM sponsored a

“So a lot of people in the community thought it was our event,” she says. “After that, for years we’d get calls from the public: ‘When are you going to have it?’” She had to disappoint all callers with the news that they had absolutely no plans to hold a hot-air balloon rally—until Pellissippi’s president, Dr. Allen Edwards, arrived at the idea as a fundraiser for the school’s scholarship fund.

“We thought it just was a great way for us to bring people into campus,” says Wood, “which is why we decided to bring it back this time under our guise.”

The school’s location is a prime spot for flying (flying being the proper term, as hot-air balloons fall under the jurisdiction of the FAA, just like airplanes and other aircraft). The smooth, spacious and mostly flat lawn allows balloonists space to spread out the large, parachute-like envelopes in preparation for inflation. And rally attendees get a good view of all the balloons as they begin to hover above the ground.

Weather is the trickiest variable. At last year’s event, the 20-plus balloons never got off the ground due to fog, wind blowing in the wrong direction, and a thunderstorm that finally led to the balloons being packed up. Still, Wood estimates about 20,000 people came out for the two-day event, which, as this year, also includes children’s activities, arts and crafts vendors, food booths and other attractions.

The disappointing weather might explain why the event’s featured entertainment, known as the balloon glow , was such a hit. Unlike tandem flights, in which riders soar upward a few hundred feet while still attached to the ground, and other balloonist games, the glow doesn’t require flight, only inflation and a good sense of timing. In that part of the event, balloonists arrange their craft around the campus’ small manmade lake. Each operator maintains radio contact with Steve Davis, the glow’s chief organizer. As they await their commands, loudspeakers project patriotic music into the dark of night. On Davis’ instruction, each balloonist lights his or her burner, shooting the propane flame into the envelope, setting the colorful globe aglow in time to the song. Each balloon’s glow can be short or long, depending on the length of the flame Davis requests. The overall effect is like a short strand of enormous blinking Christmas lights, doubled by the reflection in the lake’s surface.

Last year’s balloon glow was a first for Jimmy Hood, a Knoxville resident who has been flying since his friend bought a balloon and took him and his wife to a rally at Sevierville where the Hoods met a couple from Kodak who flew regularly. “Not too long after that I decided I wanted to get one and learn how to fly,” says Hood. That was about 13 years ago. After getting his private and commercial licenses, he taught his wife to fly; she got her certification about six years ago.

Much like learning how to pilot an airplane, becoming licensed to pilot a hot-air balloon requires about 20 hours of in-flight experience, plus written tests for private and commercial certification; pilots need the latter in order to take paying customers into the air. Hood says most training balloonists need more than a year to gain enough flight hours to qualify for the license. He flew many times in one winter and secured his quickly.

Hood is patient as he explains the specifics of hot-air balloon physics to a novice. He reminds that balloon flights are made possible by the simple fact that hot air rises, and when the rip-stock nylon or polyester envelope is filled with air heated by propane to anywhere between 90 and 280 degrees—depending on the temperature of the ambient air—a balloon will lift its wicker basket’s occupants off the ground and into the sky. The balloonist controls the aircraft’s ascent and descent with extremely loud blasts of propane from the burner. Hood’s balloon is a 77,000-cubic-foot sport balloon designed in a zigzag pattern of rainbow stripes with the Tennessee flag on the top. It can carry three people. Some balloons, he says, are 300,000 cubic feet in size and can hold as many as 16 people.

Hood still remembers his first hot-air balloon ride. “It was early morning in Sevierville,” he says. “We went about daybreak, and it was foggy and cool. We didn’t get to go very high because the way the wind was blowing. You’ve got to know which way the wind is blowing and what’s in front of you.”

They didn’t fly very far that day because of nearby commercial development. During his second flight, he attained a height of about 10,000 feet and crossed a lake. Given the right weather and location, balloons can travel up to 12,500 feet high and remain at that altitude for up to 30 minutes. Any higher or longer than that, Hood says, pilots and passengers need supplies of oxygen.

Pellissippi’s Julia Wood describes her first balloon ride—a tandem flight—as “wonderful.” “I’m afraid of heights so I wasn’t really sure how I’d feel about it,” she says. “You don’t have that sensation that makes you afraid. You’re floating with the wind; it doesn’t feel like the wind’s pushing you.” Standing inside the wicker basket lashed with Kevlar ropes, she says she didn’t feel like she would fall out. She looked out over the rural scenery and listened to dogs barking on the ground far below.

When he’s not flying, Hood, who runs a manufacturing business with his brother, serves as a crewmember for his balloonist friends who travel around the country to rallies. He recently accompanied Roy Smith, whose balloon displays Pellissippi State’s banner during the local rally, to events in Anderson, S.C. and Greenville, Miss. The ground crew tails the balloon’s flight, staying in contact via two-way radio, and catches up at the point of landing. “They rarely go back to where they started,” Hood says. “You’re at the mercy of the wind.” Bad weather is just one thing life throws in the way of our most ardently pursued hobbies. But it doesn’t dampen Hood’s enthusiasm for the sport of ballooning.

“If I could fly every weekend, and the weather would let us, I’d probably fly at least once a weekend,” Hood says. He and 20,000 others are crossing their fingers for clear skies this weekend.

What: Pellissippi State Hot-Air Balloon Festival 2005 w/featured performances by country artist Josh Turner 6:30 p.m. Friday and electric blues guitarist Mitch Rutman 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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