A balloon pilot enjoys passengers' wide-eyed awe


West Friendship - where the yards are big and the highway is only a distant hum. For Ron Broderick, this is the beginning of balloon country.

On a cool morning with no wind, he'll be up before dawn, getting ready to fly. He'll drive north of Interstate 70 with his crew to a field near Taylorsville or Mount Airy, where they'll unfurl one of his two multicolored nylon balloons (called "envelopes"), attach the basket and float away. If he's alone up there, sometimes he'll take it up to 3,000 feet, because he likes the way the Chesapeake Bay sparkles at sunrise.

Usually he keeps it around a steady 1,000 feet, because usually he's giving up to four people their first hot air balloon ride. In the past 14 years or so, he's given about 450 hourlong balloon rides through his company, Friendship Hot Air Balloon Co. He says most people prefer 1,000 feet, because at that height they can look down and see the ground slowly moving, the deer running out of the woods and across the fields, and talk to people on the ground.

"A balloon is not something you want to go fly alone in; you want to enjoy it with other people," Broderick said. "So I feel like every time I go up, it's a thrill for me."

Broderick and his crew love to watch his passengers' facial expressions. He says that from the time he takes the envelope out of the bag and starts heating it up to when they touch down an hour later, they're in constant awe.

"Most people have never been close to a balloon before, and so everything is new to them," he said. "They have no idea what to expect, and everybody loves it."

Broderick's favorite ballooning stories involve people from all walks of life. At first, he wouldn't fly people who were frail, out of concern for their safety. Then he realized that he shouldn't deny them something they've wanted to try all their lives. He flew an 88-year-old nun with ankle replacements and had a great flight. "Her interaction with my crew and the way they were carrying on, it was really an enriching experience for us," he said.

Marriage proposals aboard Broderick's hot air balloons are also pretty common. Sometimes the man takes a knee right there in the basket, and other times he has someone on the ground with a "Will You Marry Me" sign. They usually toast with champagne when the balloon sets down.

Broderick's interest in balloons started about 20 years ago, when he and his family would go to the Preakness festival. Watching the balloons take off from Druid Hill Park, he developed a fascination. His wife started designing pins, patches and custom jewelry for balloon enthusiasts, so they would travel to balloon festivals and set up a vendor tent. Broderick would help the balloon crews set up and sneak a flight in every once in a while. After a number of years going to the festivals, he decided he'd like to try it for himself. He took the Federal Aviation Administration's written exam, logged 10 hours of flight time with a commercial balloon pilot, got his license and bought a balloon.

Retired from the telephone business, Broderick doesn't rely on money from balloon flights for a livelihood. Much like farming, his business is dependent on the weather. He can fly only at sunrise and sunset because those are the calmest times of day. The past couple of years, he's been able to get in only about 30 flights per season. He says there aren't many recreational balloonists in the state, and even fewer who do it for profit, because it's not a very predictable source of income. He used to take off from his home in West Friendship, but after Sept. 11 the government enacted no-fly zones around Baltimore and Washington, so now he drives north near Mount Airy.

The only way Broderick can really control the flight is by choosing the right starting point. The rest is up to the wind, which has to be under 7 mph. Forecasts help, but the winds are always changing, and he never knows exactly where he's going to land. In his 14 years flying balloons, he's landed on the same properties only a couple of times. He says the uncertainty is just part of the fun.

While Broderick's in the air, his crew follows him from the ground by car. They use radios to communicate and figure out a big enough spot to land so the crew can be there to help unload the passengers and pack up the balloon. When he lands in someone's back yard, he tells the family to come out and bring the kids. He lets them hop in and out of the basket while he's on the ground and answers questions. The way people react when they ride a balloon or just get to see a balloon up close makes every flight worthwhile.

"If you see the faces as you're taking off, how they're all looking, and then when we land, the people looking at us, there's a lot of wonder about it all," he said."

The Friendship Hot Air Balloon Co., 12465 Barnard Way in West Friendship, will offer rides through October, weather permitting. Tickets are $220 per person for a regular flight and $550 for a romantic flight for two. Call 410-442-5566 or visit www.ballooningusa.com.

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