Meet West Friendship's 'balloonmeister'

For Howard Magazine

The third time’s the charm.

After postponing the Rhine family’s flight once because of “dead calm” conditions and a second time because of rain, hot air balloon pilot Ron Broderick finally has a sunny afternoon and enough wind to launch his 105,000-cubic-foot, rainbow-colored balloon into the skies over Carroll County.

Broderick, a West Friendship resident, knows he and his crew have to act fast to get the flight in before sunset. Within 15 minutes of arriving at the launch site, a grassy field in front of a private home, the team pulls a 350-pound basket out of a trailer, sets up altitude and temperature gauges, and tests the propane burner that propels heat into the balloon.

Next, it’s time to inflate it. Jack Rhine, 8, and Preston, 6, watch with wide eyes as Broderick and his crew stretch the deflated balloon across the grass and then turn on a giant fan. Less than 15 minutes later, the balloon stands upright. Time to launch.

“Welcome aboard Friendship Hot Air Balloon,” Broderick says after shepherding the family of four into the basket. “Destination unknown.”

Since founding Friendship Hot Air Balloon Co. in 1991, Broderick has flown more than 1,100 hours, making proposals, birthday celebrations and even bucket-list wishes comes true as he guides his balloon, Dream Star, through the sky. He also serves as balloonmeister, or coordinator, of several local festivals.

Fittingly, it was a balloon festival where Broderick discovered his passion for flying. While his wife, Nancy, traded commemorative pins with festival-goers, Broderick took to the air as a passenger at the 1990 event.

“That got me hooked,” says the former facilities engineering manager. “You know how [men] come up with these cocky ideas to buy a boat? Well, I wanted to buy a balloon.”

The next year, Broderick purchased Dream Puff, his first balloon, or “envelope” as it’s known in the industry. To learn how to fly it, he trained for 10 hours with commercial pilots and then passed a three-hour written Federal Aviation Administration exam. By 1993, when he retired, his company took off.

Expertise in the air

Hot air balloon flights are always at the mercy of the elements, as the Rhine family learned when Broderick postponed their original flight. Wind and air temperatures can make or break a flight, and rain and lightning are sure to prevent them, Broderick says.

“As with everything in life, the balloon has a procedure,” he says. “You have to understand a lot about heat going up, ambient temperatures.”

The maximum temperature in the top of the balloon shouldn’t exceed 250 degrees, Broderick says. Pilots also have to monitor wind speeds from ground level to 12,000 feet up; ideal winds are less than seven miles per hour on the ground and less than 20 miles per hour at 3,000 feet.

“We have a narrow window in the morning and evening,” Broderick says. “The rest of the day is really unstable for flying. … As soon as the sun comes up, it starts changing the temperature, and that mixing of air causes breeze.”

Crew member Matthew Hodgdon says Broderick inspired him to try to become a pilot, too.

“Most of my teaching has come from Ron,” says Hodgdon, a 16-year-old Mount Airy resident. “He has trained most of the balloon pilots in Maryland. … I trust him.”

But it’s as balloonmeister where Broderick shines. Between 2007 and 2017, Broderick coordinated flight activities at the Preakness Celebration Hot Air Balloon Festival, which moved from Turf Valley Resort to the Howard County Fairgrounds last year.

“He really taught us what a balloon festival was,” said Regina Ford, director of public relations for Turf Valley. “Ron has the patience of a saint. He was a teacher, and he taught us what it took to be safe about ballooning. … He knows everything there is to know about ballooning.”

Though he declined to elaborate, Broderick says he won’t be involved with that festival moving forward. He’ll serve as balloonmeister for other events, like Talbot County’s Chesapeake Bay Balloon and Wine Festival in August. The event, which drew 11,000 people in 2017, includes balloon flights and tethered balloon rides, where participants float up to 60 feet in the air.

The best part? Sharing the sport with others.

“We’re always encouraging people to get involved with the sport, whether to become a pilot or a crew member, because you want your sport to grow. And that’s in part what I’m doing,” he says.

Spreading the joy

During the 50-minute flight with the Rhine family, the balloon traveled about nine miles, flying over Taylorsville, acres of trees and a nearby horse farm.

“Once you’re up in the air, it’s so peaceful and quiet,” says Salena Rhine, who took her second balloon flight ever that day with her husband, Jay, and their two children. “It’s beautiful and a totally different view of the landscape. It’s a really neat experience.”

Broderick says he enjoys seeing his passengers’ reactions.

“Everybody responds a little differently, but it’s all the same at the end, saying how much they enjoyed flying and looking down,” he says. “No one has wanted to go up 100 feet and then [said] take me down. Once they get in the balloon, they love it.”

Yet for all Broderick’s pre-flight planning, there’s one thing he cannot control: the landing location.

“The fun of ballooning is as the balloons take off, we have an idea of where we’re going, but we never really know where we’re going to land,” he says.

For the Rhine flight, a small residential development off Route 97 in Eldersburg had enough open, grass-filled space for Broderick to land safely.

“When you’re a little high, you start anticipating what you see on the horizon, even though it’s a distance from you,” he says. “And then you do your best to go up or down to catch a breeze that would take me where I want to go.”

Wherever he lands, Broderick always ends his flights toasting passengers with champagne or apple cider and reciting the balloonist’s prayer.

“The winds have welcomed you with softness,” he says. “The sun has greeted you with its warm hands. You have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in laughter and set you back gently into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”

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