A photo essay by Sara Whitestone
“It’s the unpredictability that is attractive,” Aaron said.
It was a chilly morning, with the sun just rising above the tree-line, turning the fields golden and silhouetting a naked balloon basket.
But Aaron and his fiancée, Kelly, weren’t looking at the fields or the basket. Instead their eyes followed a small black test balloon that had just been launched to see if the breeze was calm enough to fly.
“Did you see how the wind hooked it?” Liana Haseltine said. She and her husband Jim are the owners of Blue Ridge Ballooning, a hot air balloon company based in Charlottesville. Seeing the worried faces of the young professional couple, Liana reassured them. “We’ll wait 15 more minutes and then send up another test balloon.”
Along with Aaron and Kelly, there were two other hopeful passengers that morning. Betty, in her early 50s, was fulfilling a wish on her bucket list, and Beth, in her mid-60s was proving that she was “not too old to try something new.” But it was Kelly who was the most nervous. “I’m afraid of heights,” she admitted to the others. Kelly was putting on a good face for Aaron’s sake. The balloon flight was part of a wedding engagement celebration that he had planned for her as a surprise.
The second small test balloon rose on a calm wind, and the pilot, Jim, gave the word to start. The passengers helped lay out the balloon canvas (called the envelope) and then held its open end so that the industrial fan could bulge the sack with air.
With the envelope mostly inflated and the burner lit, the four passengers took their places in the basket alongside Jim. He pulled the blast valve, and the balloon slowly ascended.
“Wish us luck!” Beth said from 20 feet in the air. “Take lots of pictures,” Liana called from the ground. But there was no need to remind Beth and her friend Betty to document their adventure. They were already working their cameras hard.
For the next 45 minutes
Liana car-chased the balloon over winding roads, sometimes glimpsing it above the tree-line, sometimes having to backtrack when she lost it from her sight, but always keeping in touch with Jim though their two-way radios.
Liana arrived just after the balloon landed in a fallow corn field. Jim had gently tipped the basket, allowing the passengers to crawl out and onto their feet.
“My bucket list has taken me on all kinds of rides,” Betty enthused. “I’ve flown in a helicopter and a hang glider, and I’ve even sky-dived. But this — this was the best. There’s no noise. You can see the deer down below and hear the birds . . .”
“Yes,” Liana said, “People talk of a bird’s eye view, but this really is the only way you can get one.”
“Floating over the forest . . .” Aaron whispered.
“It was so peaceful,” Beth said, as if finishing Aaron’s thought. “Not scary at all.”
Beth and Betty looked at Kelly, who had her arms wrapped around Aaron’s waist. “Not scary at all!” Kelly repeated, smiling.
“It’s that unpredictability,” Aaron said, his arm on Kelly’s shoulder. “Yeah, maybe it was a little unnerving to start with, but we’re so glad we conquered this! The mystery of it brought us closer together as a couple.”
“I know what you mean,” Liana said. “My father was a navy pilot who started ballooning as a hobby. And this was back when all it took to get a license was to come down safe again. But then he became an instructor. Even though I grew up in the sport, I still never get tired of it. It’s different every day.”
“Right here in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Jim said, “is the most beautiful place in the world to fly. Sure the Rocky Mountains are majestic, but they’re brown and well, just rocky. But the Blue Ridge . . . it’s colorful and wooded, and every season has its own beauty.”
“Jim’s very focused — which is what you want a pilot to be,” Liana said. “So he doesn’t really get to enjoy the beauty as much as he wants to.”
“But then, there’s that rare, perfect day,” Jim said, “when you are one with nature. And that’s what feeds the passion to fly.”
About the Author:
Sara Whitestone is a writer, photographer, and teacher. In exchange for instruction in English, her students at John Jay College in New York City introduce her to the mysteries of the world. And each time Whitestone teaches a Life Stories workshop, she is reminded of the metaphysical healing power of words. Whitestone’s own words have appeared in The Portland Review, Literary Traveler, and many others. Whitestone discovers writing through travel. Her current book-in-progress is a literary thriller set in Europe that is inspired by true events. Visit her website at sarawhitestone.com.