Floating in the wind: Laura Stewart became balloon pilot to enjoy the ‘fun’

By Deborah Storey | Living 50 Plus

Laura Stewart once landed her hot-air balloon in a field of cows that rambled over to investigate the stranger from the skies.

They “thought we might have food,” Stewart recalled.

That’s the thing about piloting a hot-air balloon — you never know exactly where you’ll end up.

As the wizard famously said in “The Wizard of Oz” when he abruptly went aloft without Dorothy:

“I can’t come back. I don’t know how it works!”

After 15 years of flying hot-air balloons and some 200 to 300 trips, Stewart knows exactly how they work and what she can control.

Stewart, 55, became interested in learning to fly in 2006 when she attended the annual Alabama Jubilee on Memorial Day weekend at Decatur’s Point Mallard Park and met some balloon pilots.

“In 2008 I took my check ride at Jubilee, and I’ve been flying since then,” said Stewart, a Decatur resident and labor and delivery nurse at Decatur Morgan Hospital.

“I’m what’s called a private pilot,” she said. “In ballooning, just like in airplanes, there are private pilots and commercial pilots.”

Private pilots can’t charge for rides.

She flies “absolutely just for fun,” she said.

Stewart takes friends and co-workers for rides, and even once took her boss.

The ballooning season in north Alabama is typically late spring to early fall. Winters are too wet and windy.

“We start warming up in late March to early April. We start flying to get ready for the Jubilee,” she said. “We fly some during the summer. It just kind of depends on how hot it is. Fall is the most beautiful time to fly.”

Balloon flights take off in the early morning or late afternoon when the air is most stable, preferably moving at less than 5 mph at ground level.

“We usually meet at sunrise and go out for sunrise flights,” she said. “Once in a while we’ll do an afternoon flight, but you have to be down by sunset.”

When Stewart and her crew set out for a sunrise flight, they have to cancel only about 10% to 20% of the time because of unexpected weather conditions.

If so, she makes the best of it.

“If you’re up that early, you might as well go to breakfast with your friends,” she said.

Stewart said that when most people hear that the family is involved in ballooning, they assume her husband Marc is the pilot. Instead, he heads her chase crew.

“My oldest son is hoping to get to the point where he can become a balloon pilot as well.”

Chase crews used to rely on sight, CBs or ham radios to follow a balloon. Cellphone apps and iPads do the mapping these days. Cellphones do work on balloon flights, up to about 3,000 feet.

“I prefer to stay no more than2-3,000 two-, three-thousand feet” in elevation, Stewart said. “Once you get much higher than that there’s not much to see. I’ve been over a mile high, and I’ve got friends that have gotten much higher than that.”

Her longest flight was about 90 minutes and covered roughly 10 miles.

At certain times of year, it can get chilly aloft.

“One nice thing about being in the balloon is that you move with the wind, so you don’t have wind chill,” she said.

It is possible to steer a balloon — a little. Air moves at different speeds at different levels of the atmosphere.

“We do try to use the different layers of wind to help direct the balloon in the direction we want to go, but we’re still at the mercy of mother nature,” said Stewart.

“Each flight is an adventure. We never know quite where we are going to land.”

Sometimes when the winds are coming up and there’s no great place to put down, “you just end up landing where you land without any real choice in the matter,” she said.

Athens is one of her favorite places to land her black balloon with peacock feathers. When she descended by an elementary school there, two tiny reporters were waiting to do a story.

“They came out with their clipboards, not quite sure what to ask, but it was really cute,” she said.

If balloonists do happen to land on private property, chase crews will ask the landowner if they have permission to lay out the balloon and pack it up there.

“We do everything we can to keep from damaging any crops or scaring any livestock,” she said. “Most of the times people are just excited that you’re there and they’ll bring out the kids.”

Stewart can explain the physics of balloon flight in simple terms. The balloon itself is called the envelope. Baskets are made of flexible wicker.

“The envelope is full of air,” she said. “When you heat that air up — we use a propane burner — it heats the air inside the envelope. That makes the hotter air lighter than the air around it and that’s what causes us to rise.”

To go up or down, the pilot can shut off the burner or open a vent at the top of the balloon to release hot air.

A lot of people say they wouldn’t go up in a balloon because they’re afraid of heights, she said.

“It’s really edges that people are afraid of,” Stewart said. “There’s something about standing inside the basket that takes that fear away.

“One of the most fun things to do is share it with someone who’s never flown before,” she said. “It is the simplest and safest form of aviation.”

How to learn

Balloon pilot Ken Garner of Decatur, who taught Stewart, said some people learn ballooning quickly, but others don’t.

“It depends on the person,” he said. “I’m teaching a 22-year-old kid right now. After three or four hours he’s almost ready to solo, but he’s been around it since he was 4 or 5 years old.”

Garner, 67, who estimates he has taught 15 people in the roughly 40 years he’s been flying, said the average time to learn is 20 hours. Written, oral and practical tests are required.

Garner said pilots obtain a “lighter than air license,” or specifically one that’s for a “free” balloon with airborne heaters. A “free” balloon unloads ballast to ascend and descends by releasing gas from the envelope.

“The difference between a hot-air balloon and a free balloon is that we’ve got a hot-air system on board and we can actually heat the air” above the ambient temperature, he said.

The old balloons — the “Wizard of Oz” kind — didn’t have burners, which were developed in the 1950s or ’60s.

“They would weight those down so much and pump hot air or helium or whatever into the balloon as much as possible and cut the ropes and dump a little bit of the ballast” to lift off, Garner explained.

“We don’t carry sandbags and we don’t carry extra ballast or anything like that that we can get rid of to make the balloon fly.”

A used balloon costs $8,000 to $10,000. A new one can run as much as $50,000. Cost of a commercial balloon is sky-high — more than $100,000. Garner said most people start with a used one to see if they like flying.

Balloon sizes start at roughly 54,000 cubic feet, he said, which would carry one or two people.

“The one I fly most is 105,000 cubic feet, then I’ve got one that’s about 140,000.” He’s taken as many as eight aloft with the large one.

The longest flight took him about 45 miles from Decatur into southern Tennessee.

The highest he’s ever gone was 11,500 feet — approximately two miles.

“And there ain’t no reason to go up there,” Garner said with a laugh. “We just wanted to see how high we could get one day and did it.”

Garner advises anyone who wants to take a balloon flight to bring any medical needs, and wear jeans and close-toed shoes. From start to the end point, a balloon trip can take up to four hours.

“Hopefully it’s about two and a half hours, but you never know,” he said. “We could land behind a locked gate,” which he did once. “We may land in somebody’s pasture that hasn’t been cut in two years.

“I have landed in places that people came out and offered us hot chocolate,” Garner said. “I’ve landed in places that you couldn’t get to. Every time is a unique place.”

With the right pilot, pretty much anyone can take a ride in a balloon.

“My mother was my first victim after I got my pilot’s license,” said Stewart. “She flew last year at Jubilee.

“The oldest person I ever took up was 90 years old. It was on her life list.”

Flying armadillo

Mike Wahl is the balloonmeister for this year’s Alabama Jubilee. He gives instructions for races and decides whether the balloons go up.

Roughly 50 balloons from as far as Texas and Missouri are expected to participate in this year’s Jubilee — including an armadillo and Tweety Bird. With 55 to 60 balloons most years, Jubilee is one of the biggest ballooning events in the country.

Festivities include music, a car show, craft show and the popular balloon glow on Saturday and Sunday nights.

“Last year we had about 80,000 people show up in two days to watch us,” Wahl said.

“If we get good weather, we’ll have a wonderful time,” he said. “If we don’t get good weather. we’ll still have a wonderful time.”

Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic

Cost: Free

When: May 27-28

Where: Point Mallard Park

May 27: Hound & Hare balloon race 6:30 a.m.; evening flights and tether rides 5:15 p.m.; hot-air balloon glow at 8:15 p.m.; entertainment at various times; car and motorcycle show 8 a.m.-noon; arts and crafts; tractor show

May 28: Key grab 7 a.m.; evening flight and tether 5 p.m.; fireworks 9:30 p.m.; entertainment at various times; motorcycle show all day; arts and crafts

Website: alabamajubilee.net