Thrills abide on hot-air ride

The Baltimore Sun

Hot-air balloon pilot Michael Gerred often witnesses the anxiety of first-time passengers.

The 51-year-old Bel Air resident understands the nerves. But for him, the basic balloon ride is a simple pleasure. What's difficult, even nerve-wracking, is maneuvering a balloon close enough to grab an envelope resting on a pole sticking up 20 feet from the ground.

"It gets the adrenaline going," Gerred said of the stunt, called the "convergent navigation task exercise." "It's a great feeling to know that what you've done worked, when it could have just as easily failed."

Gerred's charter ride business - Harford-based Light Flight Balloons Inc. - is the main aspect of his career as a balloon pilot. But during the past 27 years, he has piloted hundreds of flights in races and stunt-flying competitions as well, becoming a well-known name in balloon-flying circles.

For the past three years, Gerred has performed the envelope stunt at the Flying Circus Air Show in Bealeton, Va.

"Some people come within arm's length of doing it, but Mike is the only one who has actually done it at our festival," said John King, president of the event. "And the fact that he's done it three years in a row is just amazing."

For about five years, Gerred took part in competitions all over the region. By his reckoning, he has won 14 races, including at the New Jersey Festival of Ballooning where he competed against about 115 other balloons, and has placed in the top three in 25 other races, he said.

But for all competitive flying Gerred has done, he still relishes taking paying customers up to experience balloon flight for the first time.

"There's no place like home," Gerred said on a recent evening as he headed skyward from a field near Bel Air with four passengers.

Hot-air ballooning is more of an art form than a science, Gerred said.

"You have to use the wind to your advantage to get the balloon to go where you would like it to go," he said.

Gerred's passion for aviation began when he started flying at age 15. He grew up near the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, where his father worked. When Gerred wasn't flying, he was building model airplanes.

In 1974, at age 18, he joined the Naval Air Reserve. After one year of active duty, he went back to the reserves. He took a job at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital as a mental health worker from 1976 to 1980 while working on a biology degree from what was then Towson State University.

During that time, he fed his fascination with aviation by purchasing an airplane, a 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champ.

One day in 1980, Gerred struck up a conversation with a balloon pilot about that type of flying. All it took was one flight in the balloon for Gerred, who had never seen one before.

He began taking balloon-flying lessons and in 1984 purchased his first hot-air balloon for $10,000. He recently placed an order for his 14th, he said.

Despite its long tradition and reputation for beauty, the sport of ballooning has suffered in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, which led to surging liability insurance costs and tight restrictions on private aviation of all types.

Aerostar International Inc., a major manufacturer in the industry, made about 100 balloons a year in the late 1990s. But the Sioux Falls, S.D., company manufactured only 15 last year, said Martin Harms, product manager. The company, a subsidiary of Raven Industries Inc., known as a pioneer in the sport, is moving to get out of that product line altogether, he said.

The cost alone could be enough of a barrier to learning the sport. A balloon can cost from $15,000 to $100,000.

But those who are active in the sport are a fervent bunch. The Balloon Federation of America comprises more than 3,500 members who are hot-air and gas balloon pilots and crew, said Becky Wigeland, curator at the National Balloon Museum in Indianola, Iowa.

"In Iowa, there are some businesses that are in their third generation of balloon pilots," said Wigeland.

In a horse pasture near Pylesville on a recent evening, Gerred prepared to take a group of four people on a charter ride. Among the passengers were Cynthia and Jason Simon, Forest Hill residents who were looking for an unusual way to mark their 15th wedding anniversary.

To get started, Gerred and Joe Young, a crew member who also is a balloon pilot, attached the balloon to a large wicker basket lying on its side.

They spread out the balloon - referred to as an envelope - and turned on a large inflator fan that partially filled the envelope with cold air. Using a propane burner, they shot bursts of hot air into the balloon. As the hot air filled the balloon they slowly pulled it to a standing position.

The passengers climbed into the basket with Gerred. Young unhooked the balloon - 75 feet tall and 60 feet wide and named the Carousel - and watched as it headed skyward.

Young, a crew member for Gerred since 1996, put the equipment into a van and started to follow the balloon.

"Unlike fixed-wing aircraft, you don't decide where you are going to go - you are at the wind's mercy," Young said as he gave chase to the balloon.

The biggest challenge is finding a place to land, said Young, who started flying for Gerred in 2003. "When you leave the ground, you have to be thinking, 'In an hour's time where will I land?'" Young said.

Gerred makes about 175 charter flights a year. But in all his years of flying, only two local land owners have denied him permission to land. Cooperation of the landowners is the most important part of the business, Gerred said. So once on the ground, he ends every trip with a champagne toast that includes the landowner, the passengers and crew.

The goodwill gesture is part of a tradition that began more than 200 years ago when the first balloons landed in France, he said.

"The farmers were scared when they saw the balloons. They would come running out of their barns with pitchforks because they thought the passengers and crew were demons," Gerred said. The balloon pilots brought along French champagne to prove they were from France.

As Gerred poured the champagne for the anniversary ride, the passengers rehashed the trip. Jason Simon had been the latest passenger to exhibit preflight jitters. And while Cynthia was the picture of calm before the ride, she was the one who got queasy in flight.

"After about five minutes, Jason was fine," she said. "But I got scared when I looked down over the edge of the basket."

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