Patience is a virtue, so they say. No one can accuse us of not having that trait as Ron’s long-awaited hot air balloon ride finally came to fruition.

Over three years ago, he told me that one of the things on his bucket list was a balloon ride. I didn’t forget. The hard part was finding someone who would fly him over his farm instead of over Indianapolis. Mark and Alora Westra, owners of Stars and Heights Hot Air Balloon Rides, made the dream come true.

They were willing to come up to Economy, IN and fly him over his farm. The hard part was waiting for all the conditions to be right. Ron wanted to fly in the fall, after harvest and all the crops were off the fields. Having some place safe to land, with regard to not ruining crops and also being a safe distance from power lines and roads, is a major concern.

On top of that is wind direction. An open space large enough to lay the balloon out and take-off is needed, also in regard to wind direction on the day of flight. We scouted for such places and, as luck would have it, on Thursday, November 8, 2018, the conditions were right and the journey began. He could lift-off directly to the east of his grain bins.

Ideal wind conditions are winds between 4 and 6 MPH at ground level and not more than 10. I was amazed when they drove up that the balloon, which was packed into a bag, the basket and burner were all tucked into the bed of a pickup.

After unloading and stretching the balloon out on the ground, heated air was forced into the balloon to start it inflating. These balloon envelopes, as they are referred to, are so much bigger than they look at a distance. To lift an adult man, the envelope has to have a 13-foot radius and air has to be heated to 120*. A deflated balloon, the basket and 30 to 40 gallons of fuel weigh about 800 pounds. In the air, this same package, along with a pilot, will weigh 2-1/2 tons. Wow! No wonder weight is also a major factor.

Once the balloon was inflated and the tethers were removed, it didn’t take any time at all for the balloon to lift-off and start gliding west over the farm. With Ron being located right on US Hwy 35, the whole event attracted a entourage of curious onlookers as well as the friends who turned out. We followed his ride behind Alora and the rest of the chase crew for over an hour and roughly 15 miles.

I had heard that landings could be rough and, on this note, Ron only had two instructions before they went up. Mark told him to have fun but keep his arms and himself inside the basket until they told him to get out. It seems that in the past, as soon as they touched down, passengers would dismount which made the basket too light and it would start to ascend again!

They chose a cornfield in which to land and it really wasn’t too bad. As soon as the basket touched down, the crew ran to secure it as it rolled on its side. The balloon envelope gently laid down in the field and then it was folded into a long ribbon and tucked back into the bag. From start to finish, it was about a three-hour ordeal.

After everything was packed up, Mark and Alora did their traditional ceremony that they perform for all their rides. Ron got a flight certificate proclaiming him an “official aeronaut” and a commemorative pin. Then we all celebrated a successful flight with a champagne toast.

 Although we had been hoping to get this flight in for over three years, we are grateful to Mark and Alora for having the diligence to make sure that all conditions are right for not only a memorable ride but also a safe one. Mark says, “This happens all the time, people book a flight and sometimes it takes this long or longer to make sure it is the right time.”

They also took the time to make sure that everyone was comfortable before the flight. After all, it isn’t every day that one takes a balloon ride!

Even though this was a great experience that will be remembered for a lifetime, there is something else about the Westra’s that impressed me as much as the ride itself. Bailey Hunsberger was born with severe heart defects and was a patient off and on throughout her life at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, IN. She also was a member of their balloon team and loved to come out to crew every chance she got.

Mark and Alora have supported Riley hospital in a big way through the years and continue to do so. For eleven years they did the Riley Balloonathon fundraiser as part of the Indy Air Show. During that time, as a group, they raised over $200,000 for Riley. After the air show was cancelled, they continued the Riley Balloonathon at their place for two years with all food, tent, prizes and lodging proceeds going to Riley. Over the years they have sold many “Riley rides” where folks will purchase a balloon ride and 100% of the proceeds are donated to Riley. They continue to support the hospital by making their equipment and crew available to any parent who has lost a child or any child who is healthy enough to take a balloon ride. How incredible is this!

The cause is great and so is the ballooning experience. Through this I have learned a few other fascinating tidbits about hot air balloons…

  1. Though about 1200 feet sounds pretty high for Ron’s flight, the world record for the height of a hot air balloon is 68,900 feet. The longest flight was from Japan to Canada and was also the fastest at 245 MPH.
  2. The pilot must know the wind direction at different altitudes because his only ability to “steer” the balloon is to raise or lower it into winds going different directions.
  3. Hot air balloons are the oldest form of human flight. A rooster, a duck and a sheep were the first balloon passengers. The sheep was the closest to a human and the duck and rooster, who were flying creatures themselves, were taken to test the effects of the flight. The first humans went for a 20-minute ride on November 21, 1783.
  4. Flights are not possible in rain because the heat from the burner causes the rain to boil and destroys the fabric of the balloon, not a good idea!
  5. Both the North and the South used balloons during the Civil War to spy on the other side, but this practice went by the wayside as balloons made easy targets, also not a good idea!
  6. The tradition of having champagne after a balloon flight started in France as a way to make amends with angry farmers whose crops were destroyed when rich people’s balloons landed in their fields.
  7. The world’s largest hot air balloon festival happens for 9 days every October in Albuquerque, NM, with an average of 750 balloons dotting the blue skies.
  8. Battle Creek, MI hosted the 5th World Hot Air Balloon Championship in 1981 with pilots from 23 countries and 195 balloons. This eventually led to the establishment of the Battle Creek Field of Flight Air Show and Balloon Festival in 2003.

There is no gentler and quieter way to experience God’s world from a different perspective than in a hot air balloon. Ron described it best when he referred to the experience as a “quiet beauty.” How could it get much better than that!

  • Published on Dec 6, 2018
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