Photo of a hot air balloon

Up, up and away

The magic of hot air ballooning
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As school principals, we were often accused of being full of hot air when we talked too long at staff meetings. What better way to make use of that than to buy a hot air balloon?

I was principal of a wonderful school in a difficult neighbourhood in the 1990s, and some days seemed to jump from one crisis to another — there was never a dull moment. It didn’t help that Hells Angels headquarters were next door and police were frequently needed to remove intruders from school property. I loved my job, but I needed a complete break on weekends. Retirement was on the horizon, too, and I was already looking to try something different than what I had done during my career.

In 1990, I decided to buy a hot air balloon and learn how to fly it.

My passion for hot air ballooning began in 1986 when I took my first hot air balloon flight during a summer vacation in England. I saw an ad in a local paper and thought, “Why not?”

It was an amazing experience, floating peacefully across the Yorkshire Dales, taking in magnificent views from a mile high, and then dropping rapidly to observe wildlife a mere 10 feet from the ground. I was hooked. Thrilling experience. Magnificent views. Social champagne celebration. Who wouldn’t be?

Photo of Jon and passenger post ride celebrating with chapagne

When I came home, I contacted Cameron Balloons in Stouffville, Ont., and arranged to take the training required to get my balloon pilot’s licence.

Becoming a balloon pilot was much harder than I had expected it to be. The first order of business: a course in air regulations and a comprehensive exam for Transport Canada. Then, several months of flight training, learning how to read the winds, land in tight spots and be aware of animals and crops.

I still sometimes miss the adventure and the camaraderie, especially when I see a balloon sailing the sky. Because whatever problems you have when you take off disappear by the time you land.

Photo of packing up balloon in Winter

Balloons travel with the wind, and depending on wind speed, we could travel 10 to 30 miles on a single flight. Chase crew followed us to where we landed, usually on private property. Most landowners were happy to see us and joined us for a champagne celebration.

I was lucky to have a wonderful instructor who trained me well and signed me off when I was competent. After passing the balloon pilot’s exam, I received my licence and could finally fly my own balloon.

Ballooning is an expensive activity. I bought a beautiful Cameron balloon that could carry four passengers and a new truck and trailer to carry equipment to one of the many launch sites in Durham Region. But that was just the beginning. Insurance was $100 per flight, and the cost of propane for the balloon tanks and gas for the chase truck were a further $100. I needed two crew members to assist with flight preparation and to follow the balloon during flight. That was another $100. I was looking at $300 per flight.

The only way I could pay for my new hobby was to take paying passengers.

Photo of setting up balloon

I named my balloon Skylark, and my new company was registered as Skylark Balloons. I advertised romantic flights for two and was astounded at the response. Young men seemed to think it was incredibly romantic to propose marriage in a hot air balloon at 3,000 feet, usually with a rose and a ring all ready. I heard more proposals than Elizabeth Taylor, some on bended knee, some with a romantic poem or nervous speech. Only one woman said no, leaving an embarrassed silence for the rest of the flight.

It was wildly exciting, and we always celebrated with champagne when we landed in some hayfield or meadow. The drive back to base was full of noisy laughter as my passengers relived every minute of their experience.

Once, we landed in a field of angry bulls; another time we were thrown out into a snowbank when the basket tipped on landing. One cold winter’s day, a kind and jovial woman invited me and my crew in for bacon sandwiches and coffee. We huddled in front of her farmhouse hearth, warming our feet on her enormous pot-bellied pig. Then there was the passenger who scattered her father’s ashes from 1,000 feet with some embarrassing results.

It was the world of hot air ballooning, and my enthralled staff soon wanted to experience that world for themselves.

In June 1995, my retirement day was fast approaching, and I wanted to arrange something special for the staff before I moved on. My pilot instructor had three large balloons that could carry eight passengers each, and he was able to arrange a summer evening flight for all 18 of us.

It was an amazing spectacle as four balloons rose into the sky for a leisurely flight across magnificent countryside. We landed an hour later and gathered together for a final celebration. The excitement and elation was extraordinary as we sipped champagne and nibbled on strawberries, pâté and crackers. The animated babbling went on until dark, and then continued by the headlights of the four chase vehicles.

Skylark Balloons continued well into my retirement, and so did the adventures and exciting incidents. It was inevitable that these stories should be written down, and so they were. My book, A Skylark in Blue Yonder, was published in 2014, when my flying days finally came to an end because the medical exam for pilots becomes more difficult after age 70.

I still sometimes miss the adventure and the camaraderie, especially when I see a balloon sailing the sky. Because whatever problems you have when you take off disappear by the time you land.

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