A balloon with a view

It was a venture that almost didn't fly.

HiFlyer, the helium-filled tourist balloon based at a courtyard next to Port Discovery children's museum, has taken five years to get off the ground.


Then, just as Baltimore's newest attraction was about to take its inaugural flight Thursday, traffic jams and smoke from the train wreck forced a postponement.

But yesterday the balloon ride developed by Sky High of Maryland LLC took off.


"Finally," said Lee Raskin, who heads Sky High, as HiFlyer's doughnut-shaped gondola swayed through the air above the museum and Power Plant Live entertainment complex. "It's a proud moment for Baltimore."

The gondola reached an altitude of about 340 feet, well below the 500-foot limit set by the Federal Aviation Administration. feet.

At that height, on a clear day, riders can see just about every major landmark in the city. Although passengers at the balloon's maximum height will still be lower than the city's tallest buildings, HiFlyer will provide one of the city's highest public observation points, Raskin said. The Top of the World Observation Level in the World Trade Center building at the Inner Harbor is 385 feet high.

HiFlyer nearly got weighed down by bureaucratic concerns in the five years leading to yesterday's inaugural flight.

Government regulators were most worried about the balloon's altitude. The attraction needed FAA approval, even though the agency did not consider the balloon an aircraft, but an amusement ride (it's raised and lowered by a single cable attached to a 10-ton winch on the ground).

Even so, HiFlyer's location will be marked on pilot navigation charts because it uses air space.

The balloon also passed muster with the Police Department, which feared the craft would interfere with their helicopters. The owners have agreed to lower the balloon in an emergency.

The balloon also needed approval from the city's Design Advisory Panel, whose members were concerned that it would distract drivers on the Jones Falls Expressway or become a target for vandals. Extra security was hired.


HiFlyer's owner has a 10-year lease with the city for its "airfield," the courtyard at President and Baltimore streets. And Raskin won the approval of the Maryland Transportation Authority to be located so close to one of its subway stops.

The idea for the project grew from a trip that civic leader Walter Sondheim made five years ago to France, where he rode a similar balloon. Since then, Port Discovery signed on to support the project as an educational and tourist attraction.

The Abell Foundation agreed to finance the $1.5 million development costs.

To connect the inaugural flight to Baltimore's history, Sky High, Port Discovery and eSylvan, the balloon's corporate sponsor, recruited 13 young people to re-enact a flight made by a city teen 217 years ago.

He was 13-year-old Edward Warren, who in 1784 became the first American to ride a hot air balloon when he lifted off from Mount Vernon in a "chariot" owned by a local lawyer and tavern keeper, according to local media accounts at the time.

Yesterday the local recruits, ages 11 to 14, took the maiden ride in the new balloon.


"It was, like, really fun," said Liz Graves, 14, of Severna Park. "You could see the Inner Harbor and most of Baltimore. I'd go again."

Mandi Sterling, 13, of Bel Air, said two or three of the kids were scared as HiFlyer rose and swayed.

"They were crouching down and holding on," she said. "I was a little scared, too, but it was cool to see the tops of all of the buildings from the air instead of driving in a car and seeing just the sides."

HiFlyer's owner is hoping for 200,000 riders a year on the balloon, only the second of its kind in the nation. The other is in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

The narrated ride takes about 15 minutes - four minutes up and four minutes down - and will run from 10 a.m. to midnight for fees ranging from $8.50 to $15. Tickets are being sold at Port Discovery, which plans to tie educational events to the balloon.