Reporter's Notebook The Tattoo

Balloons Over Bristol lift off

BRISTOL — As we lifted off slowly from the ground, I began to think, for the first time, about how high 1,000 feet is. It’s very high no matter how you look at it, but it’s even higher in a large, hot air balloon.

I was part of the ‘press launch,’ a preview of this weekend’s Balloons Over Bristol festival at Memorial Boulevard Middle School.

At 5 a.m. Friday, looking down from the balloon with Mick Murphy, my pilot, and his assistant, Steve Uschchak, I watched Page Park shrink away behind me.

“You see,” Murphy said, pointing to an instrument inside the small, wicker basket, “the air inside the balloon is about 122 degrees, whereas the air outside is 54.”

I peered up into the nylon chute overhead, watching a 5-foot column of orange flame scream above us.

“Because the air is so much warmer inside and the envelope captures the heat generated,” Murphy said, “we flat through the colder surrounding air. That’s how it works.”

He seemed genuinely impressed with the process.

In fact, despite his countless hours in the air — 13 years since his first flight, the experience that prompted him to form a ballooning company with his brother — he seemed genuinely impressed with everything about the morning ride.

I’d expected it to be jerky, unstable, wind howling in my ears. Instead, as we passed over Bristol Eastern High School, ascending steadily, the most frightening thing about it was the quiet.

The only sounds we could hear were those coming off the ground. Dogs barked and other balloonists scrambled to lift off, early risers heading to their morning destinations. We could hear it all.

A jogger waved to us from below and I realized as we waved back, noting our height (about 300 feet and climbing), that I could hear her footsteps on the pavement. It was eerie, but somehow calming.

Below, in a white van, was one of Murphy’s students, chasing us and keeping us in view.

“You have to have a good chaser,” Murphy said. “The worst landings are when you touch down nd there’s no (car) access.”

“Then you have to take this thing apart yourself and carry it. The basket alone weighs about 600 pounds. I’ve huffed and puffed it back. It’s not fun.”

As Bristol faded in the distance, Murphy began to sell me on ballooning. I didn’t bother telling him that the view had already done the job.

“Ballooning was really the first form of flight,” Murphy said, “a hundred years before Orville and Wilbur Wright.”

According to Murphy, the whole thing began with a pair of French brothers who manufactured paper. Watching a sheet of paper float across a smoke-fed fire, the two decided to construct a smoke-powered balloon. A few mistakes later, they came to their senses and bean to use hot air.

“These days we use propane,” Murphy said as he pointed to two 10-galloon tanks, “which is the same stuff you have on your barbecues at home.”

As a set of menacing high-voltage wires came into view, Ushchak, the assistant, chimed in.

“Those things, the wires, are the most dangerous thing about ballooning,” he said.

Ushchak, 65, has only recently taken up ballooning.

“Why don’t we try to pick a target?” Murphy said.

At first, we looked to touch down in a few open fields.

“We have a great respect for the landowners,” Murphy said. “They’re always great about letting us land on their property.”

Unable to maneuver fast enough, we missed our chosen field and had to press further up and on.

We next targeted The Aquaturf, where, according to Murphy, a ballooning festival called “frozen buns” is held every January.

After a number of attempted landings foiled by the wind, we finally set down on the lawn of Meriden man who greeted us in bare feet and shorts. He invited us in for coffee.

“People love balloons,” Murphy said. “They’re never upset by our landing and usually invite us to come back.”

In exchange for the landing space, Murphy distributed certificates for free balloon rides, a generous gift at an average of $225 per flight.

“We can control the up and down part of things,” Murphy said as we disassembled the balloon. “But beyond that, we’re really at the mercy of the wind. It was a beautiful morning, though, and it’s going to be a beautiful weekend for the festival.”

Joe Wilbur is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International. He wrote this as a correspondent for The Bristol Press.

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