For 11 years, Michael Gerred dutifully pushed papers as director of the risk management department at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. But there came a day three years ago when the lure of being loosed from thebonds of earth and its daily routines made Gerred chart a new coursefor his life.

Today, he sails the open, blue skies in hot air balloons -- and makes money doing it.

"I just wasn't happy pushing papers from one side of a desk to another," said Gerred, who operates Light Flight Hot Air Balloons out of a home-office on South Main Street in Bel Air. He's had the balloonride business up and running full time for three years.

"Lifting free of the earth in a hot air balloon, that's the whole thing for me. We live in a world where we're always trying to control everything.But there's a mystique about hot air balloons . . . the folly of where you land. You relinquish control to Mother Nature and go where Godtakes you."

Light Flight's motto: "Romance and Adventure in the Air."

Gerred, who holds a pilot's license to operate what are knownas lighter-than-air vehicles, operated the balloon ride business part time for seven years before going full time.

Starting the business was the only way to pay for his hobby as a licensed pilot for hot air balloons, he said.

"The basket costs $7,000, the burner about $5,000 and the propane tanks about $2,000 plus the cost of the envelope itself," said Gerred. "I know balloonists who go without living inthe neighborhood they want to live in or without the car they want to drive so they can go up in a balloon. But then any hobby can be expensive -- some people have $50,000 or $100,000 tied up in a sailboat."

Fortunately for Gerred, his hot air ballon charter business, which makes up about 80 percent of his operation, took off. Today, Gerred operates three aircraft which the company launches from three dozensites throughout Harford and Baltimore Counties.

Since January, for example, he's carried seven couples heavenward so the big questioncould be popped for marriage proposals. He even took a couple aloft for their wedding.

Light Flight charges $150 per person. A chartered balloon adventure lasts about three hours, including the drive to and from the launch site and the one-hour ride in the air.

Gerred,35, said the company is averaging 300 passengers annually and makes between seven to 10 flights a week, depending on the weather.

Thisyear, he said, his company should have net earnings of about $45,000.

"Last year was a bad year for us because it rained every weekend," said Gerred, who takes such setbacks philosophically. "We're so weather-dependent, you can't let it frustrate you. It's not so much frustration for us as it is for the folks who are going to fly. That maybe the only weekend they have to make the flight, but I try to leaveroom in my flight schedule for adjustments."

Light Flight also offers aerial advertising, flight training and cold-air ballons for promotions. It's one of three full-time commercial balloon operations inthe state, said Gerred.

When he's not working, chances are you'llfind Gerred participating in hot air balloon races. He took first place in a balloon race Aug. 24 at the Maryland State Fair.

Althoughhe loves what he does for a living, like any other businessman, Gerred said, he hates to go to work some days, especially since the work hours can be a little out of ordinary. Gerred says the best times to fly are one hour before sunset and one hour before sunrise.

"Thereare times at 4 a.m. when you drag yourself out of bed and it seems like drudgery," Gerred said.

"But every time the balloon breaks free of the earth it's magical. And for most people, it's their first time in a balloon and their excitement rekindles in me the memories of my first time. The feeling is hard to describe."

When Gerred gets uninitiated passengers, he tries to put them at ease by noting that going up in a hot air balloon is a lot like going up in an elevator, without the sensation of motion.

"It's like you're suspended motionless and somebody is moving the scenery beneath you. There's no rocking or swaying," he said.

During the actual balloon ride, Gerred isvery much the showman. He explains everything the balloon is doing carefully to passengers, and he does his best to enhance the flight bypointing out sights below, from deer in cornfields to children waving.

Occasionally Gerred likes to recognize those on the ground as he's lifting off with his own version of the "call of the wild," a cross between the screech of a jungle bird and Tarzan's famous cry.

For all his showmanship, Gerred takes what he does for a living seriously. His pilot's license allows him to pilot balloons and blimps, as well as some airplanes. And he has studied meteorology so that he can"read" air currents at different altitudes.

If he doesn't think wind conditions or the weather are appropriate, he won't take off.

"I've had passengers try to get me to fly when I didn't think it was safe," Gerred said. "But I learned a long time ago it's far better tobe on the ground wishing you were flying than to be flying and wishing you were on the ground. When you're carrying passengers, safety has to come first.

"A balloon flight is their fantasy. I'm simply there to make it happen."

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