It's been more than a decade since hot air ballooning was dealt a huge blow in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when concern for national safety was at an all-time high and many flights were grounded.
"We've come a long way since then," said Ron Broderick, a balloon pilot who works out of his West Friendship home. "And federal restrictions have eased up a tad."
Broderick should know. He's been flying for 20 years.
His expertise as a pilot and an organizer will be on display May 10-12 when the Preakness Celebration Hot Air Balloon Festival comes to Turf Valley, where he will reign as balloonmeister for the fourth year.
A balloonmeister is the honorary title given the flight director who organizes a balloon festival, Broderick said. "Meister" is German for master.
Twenty balloons of all colors, including two specialty-shaped balloons, will converge on the Ellicott City resort complex off U.S. 40 for the festival that is held in anticipation of the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown. The horse race will be held at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on May 19.
Stinky the Skunk and the Purple People Eater will join 18 inverted-teardrop balloons for the colorful mass ascensions.
"It's a lot of fun to all fly together," said Broderick, whose balloons are named DreamPuff and DreamStar. He added that watching the balloons rise over Turf Valley creates quite a spectacle for those with their feet firmly planted on the ground as well.
Two days of balloon-related activities and a free family-oriented festival with entertainment and craft and food vendors will be held from 4-9 p.m., culminating in a 6:30 a.m. balloon launch on Saturday. Three other launch times are also scheduled.
"People like (this event) because it celebrates Preakness," said Broderick, who grew up in Catonsville and has sentimental memories of past celebrations. "It's a great crowd-pleaser."
The Preakness Festival has been a Baltimore tradition for 27 years, but was only moved from Oregon Ridge to Ellicott City in 2008, he said. In 1975, three or four balloons took off from Sandy Point State Park and flew across the Chesapeake Bay, Broderick said.
With Howard County located midway between Baltimore and Washington, that means hot air balloons are launching from near the upper edge of the Federal Aviation Administration's 30-mile no-fly zone that emanates out from the White House, Broderick said.
G8 Summit forces move
And when the President of the United States travels the 60 miles from Washington to Camp David, in Catoctin Mountain Park in nearby Frederick County, a no-fly zone is instituted there. Since the 38th G8 Summit will be held May 18-19 at Camp David, this year's Preakness Celebration was moved to the weekend before the race, Broderick said.
FAA regulations definitely make flying a hot air balloon a bit trickier, the veteran pilot says. But in capable hands — and armed with detailed weather reports, instruments and charts to aid in calculating speed, direction and shift of the wind — balloon rides easily avoid restricted air space, Broderick said.
Still, there is only so much that expertise can guarantee.
"We are at the mercy of the wind once we take off," says Broderick, and there's no way to predict with pinpoint accuracy where the flight will end up. That's when the chase crew steps in. Keeping in touch with Broderick via CB radio, they appear as the 45- to 60-minute flight nears its end.
"I've landed in schoolyards, farmers' fields and backyards," Broderick said. The crew helps ensure that the landing site, and the landing itself, are as smooth as possible.
While most property owners understand the wind is calling the shots and don't object to an impromptu landing, a few rush out and order everyone off their property, he said.
Over the years, the retired engineering manager says that he, just like every other balloon pilot, has "heard and seen it all" when it comes to customers.
He once flew a 91-year-old man who was barely able to stand in the four-passenger wicker basket, and has had customers grow very angry over a series of weather cancellations. Yet the majority of passengers have wanted to take a hot air balloon ride for a while, and so the pilot gets people "at one of their happiest times."
"It's an expensive sport at $260 per person," acknowledges Broderick, noting festival rides carry a discounted fee. "Most people plan a ride for a special occasion to justify the cost. And a lot of people started adding balloon rides to their lists of things to do after that movie ["The Bucket List"] came out."
'No sense of fear'
Tim Fenlon can identify with the movie-inspired phenomenon in a second-hand way. The Dayton insurance agent learned from his daughter that his wife Linda longed to take a balloon ride. Fenlon made the surprise arrangements soon afterward.
"The weather was beautiful and the breeze was perfect," he recalled of the couple's October 2011 flight for Linda's birthday. "Everyone already knows that the Maryland countryside is pretty, but wait till you get up 1,500 feet.
"I have a healthy respect for heights, but it was very relaxing and there was no sense of fear," he said. "Ron was extremely careful about checking the balloon and the equipment. We would do it again, no doubt about it."
Broderick varies the height of each flight so passengers can experience the treetops at 1,000 feet as well as the view from 3,000 feet, though balloons can go higher. A 90-foot-tall balloon, which is called an envelope, is able to lift off the ground because the air inside it is heated by a 10-foot propane flame and is warmer than the surrounding air, he explained. Warmer days require warmer air inside the envelope to achieve lift.
He estimates that 20 percent of the population "won't even get near a hot air balloon" and 30 percent are timid, but end up taking a ride. A full 50 percent of his customers treat a balloon ride like a Ferris wheel and "just step aboard and love it."
Tethered balloon rides offer a shorter and cheaper experience at the festival. The balloons are controlled by ropes at three points, only rise 80 feet in the air, and don't leave the premises, making them a popular option.
There will also be a Balloon Glow at dusk both nights of the festival, when tethered balloons are heated to make them stand up and are lit from within by the flame for a visual treat.
A cold-inflated balloon, which won't stand up because the air inside isn't warmed, will lie on its side on the ground so that festival-goers can walk inside and check it out.
"This is a balloon that's no longer in service and it allows people to get up close and touch it," Broderick said. Inflated beach balls are placed inside to be kicked around for fun.
So, what's the balloonmeister's advice to people who can't make up their minds about flying? Go for it, he says.
"There is no real sensation of movement" as the balloon glides along, he said. "It really is relaxing and a lot of fun. I'm just hooked on it."