Thursday, August 18, 2011
First lighter-than-air flight amazing experience
By Mike Ullery
TROY — Wednesday is traditionally a busy day at the Miami County Fair. Kid’s Day, Veteran’s Day, Senior Citizen’s Day and, of course, the Sale of Champions are just a few of the very special events that take place on the next-to-the-last day of the fair.
This year, fair board members added a new event, one that was actually two events rolled into one. Wednesday evening fairgoers were treated to a hot air balloon launch followed by a balloon glow.
As the annual veteran’s tribute ceremony was taking place in the grandstand, five enormous balloons were being inflated on the infield of the track. Near ceremony end, one by one, the balloons lifted off and floated majestically over the grandstand, then over the midway, guided by a gentle evening breeze.
I was lucky enough to hitch a ride on one of the balloons Wednesday. A huge thank you goes out to my friend and colleague, Troy Daily News photographer Tony Weber for throwing the opportunity into my lap.
We were both photographing the crews as they inflated the balloons when Weber ran over and asked if I wanted to ride in one of the balloons. A ride was offered to him, but he was scheduled to shoot the Sale of Champions that was scheduled to begin in less than 30 minutes and decided that, in order to make sure he did not miss his event, he would turn a chance of a lifetime over to me.
I ran the 50 yards to the balloon, was introduced to pilot Sean Askren, literally as I climbed into the basket, and seconds later, we lifted off.
As luck would have it, the evening breeze took us directly over the fairgrounds where we were treated to a wonderful bird’s-eye view of the grounds.
Flying in the balloon was unlike anything I have ever flown in the past. I was awestruck by the silence. We could clearly hear the voices of people talking below us as well as the usual midway sounds.
As we drifted east past the fairgrounds, the silence was complete, the only sounds were the clicking of my camera shutter and the occasional hiss of the propane burner as Askren added heat to keep our altitude at 300 to 400 feet.
We knew this would be a short flight as the pilots and ground crews needed to get back for the balloon glow, so as soon as Askren spotted the expansive open areas in Duke Park, he announced the it would make a good landing zone.
Our lighter-than-air craft crossed the western border of the park and we watched as dozens of pairs of curious eyes turned skyward to watch our decent.
Askren told me to expect a little bump as we touched down and to bend my knees to absorb the impact. We touched down at Duke Park near the large gazebo and just yards from the access road, making it easy for the chase crew to get to us.
The landing was a very good one, based on my this-was-my-first-balloon-flight, experience. We touched down with less impact than I would have guessed, then as the envelope began to deflate, our basket gently laid over on its side, with both of us still inside. We simply crawled out.
My first balloon flight lasted about eight minutes. They were eight very amazing minutes.
The chase vehicle, with crew chiefs Ed and Kendal Wright of Centerville, was on the scene minutes later. The envelope was carefully folded, put into a bag and loaded into the van, followed by the basket. The entire process took less than fifteen minutes.
Askren is from Middletown and has been piloting balloons for 33 years. He averages around 100 flights every year. Crew chief Ed Wright said that Askren has made a personal tradition of going for a flight, no matter how short, on New Year’s Day every year.
Askren has piloted more than 75 different balloons and has flown in every state in the continental U.S. He is a former pilot of the Winston Cup balloon for NASCAR and a ReMax pilot.
The craft that we flew at the fair stands 90 feet tall when inflated and is 60 feet wide. The envelope contains 1000 square yards of material, sewed together by 27 miles of thread. “In the bag,” the envelope weighs in at 250 pounds.
To heat the air to allow the balloon to soar into the sky, a pair of propane burners, spew heat and flame to the tune of 20 million BTUs of energy that burns at 1600 degrees.
Judging by the success of this first ballooning event at the 2011 fair, I hope that it is the beginning of a new tradition.