|By Lori O'Brien|
NORTHAMPTON-"Excellent launch guys."
On the evening of Sept. 7, hot air balloon pilot Lisa L. Fusco called out a thank-you to her ground crew as she magically lifted the 90,000 cubic foot Teddy Bear Pools balloon high into the evening sky. It was a picture-perfect night for a bird's-eye view of the valley the sun was beginning to set and temperatures remained in the low 80's.
Pioneer Valley Balloons, located at the Northampton Airport on Old Ferry Road, flies balloons year-round weather permitting. Hot air balloons fly at sunrise or before sunset since these are the times of day when the winds are calmest, according to Fusco.
Fusco, of Northampton, has been flying balloons commercially for seven years and has more than 700 flight hours logged. Vinnie Melling of Florence, also a pilot for Pioneer Valley Balloons, has been flying commercially for three years. Balloonists must meet the standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration to obtain a balloon pilot license and all commercial pilots must have 35 hours of flight time to obtain a commercial license, according to Fusco.
Both agreed it is important "not to take any chances" when deciding whether to fly on a given day. Weather conditions and wind speeds are carefully reviewed by the pilot and ground crew before deciding to leave for a flight.
"We have a perfect safety record," added Fusco.
On Sept. 7, the first toy balloon was released just after 5 p.m. to determine the direction of the wind and speed and Fusco quickly decided to err on the side of caution and wait 30 minutes to see if the wind would die down. For the hot air balloon to take off safely and successfully, the wind must be 8 knots or below, said Fusco. To pass the time, Fusco delved into the history of hot air ballooning which started with the Montgolfier brothers in 1783 in France. From its earliest days, she said, hot air balloons have fascinated people worldwide and for many a ride in a hot air balloon is a lifelong dream.
"For most people, going up in a hot air balloon has been a lifelong dream," said Fusco. "I love helping people achieve that dream and being a part of their memorable experience."
Laszlo Dienes of Amherst, one of the passengers that evening, had his lifelong dream come true thanks to his family who purchased a balloon ride for him as a birthday gift. Dienes is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His wife, Klara, was on hand taking photographs of her husband's flight that will be shared with their children who reside in other parts of the country.
By 5:40 p.m. another toy balloon was released and Fusco and crew all agreed conditions were optimal for the evening flight. All crew and passengers were then quickly loaded into a van and escorted to the designated launch site on the airport grounds. The ground crew worked at a fever pitch unpacking the fan, basket, balloon and burner to prepare for the flight. The basket was laid on its side and the balloon smoothed out. Fusco also asked for volunteers from the night's passengers to assist the crew. I had the opportunity to hold open one side of the massive balloon while it was being inflated by industrial-size fans until it could stand straight up.
Once all of the last-minute preparations were in place and flying wires were attached, Fusco conducted a walk around inspection and then instructed passengers one at a time to climb into the basket (a note to future passengers wear shorts or slacks and comfortable shoes!).
By 6:05 we were airborne and Fusco alerted the passengers she would "try to catch the wind to the right" which she did and soon we were floating effortlessly over the Connecticut River, Route 9 traffic, and several cornfields and pumpkin patches. As the sun was slowly setting, Mt. Sugarloaf, Mt. Greylock and the University of Massachusetts Amherst could be seen from a distance. Also, the landscape included area residents out for their evening walk waving hello as we slowly cruised overhead at times sailing across the tops of the tallest tree-lined streets or almost landing on the tops of corn stalks in one of the valley's fields yet to be harvested.
As we tracked north at approximately 900 feet up, Fusco pointed out we were on a "nice track" because of the picturesque towns that truly represent a quintessential New England. As we drifted along the reflection of our balloon was apparent on barns including one with tobacco leaves drying inside.
"You can look out and gain perspective of the valley," said Fusco.
Periodically, Fusco checked her fuel gauges and radioed to her ground chase crew to ensure they still had us in sight so when we landed they can quickly disassemble the balloon.
Fusco said every balloon ride is different because of the passengers and changes to the landscape as each season passes.
Time passes quickly and after approximately 45 minutes Fusco began to look for a landing site. She explained there are three criteria for determining a landing area accessibility for the land crew to bring a van and trailer out to the landing site to breakdown the balloon; a level, clear area free of trees and power lines, and availability.
"Sometimes an area may not be ideal, but if there is nothing better nearby, it becomes the spot," she said.
The balloon pilot must always keep in mind the amount of propane left in the tanks and what direction they are flying, she added.
"A less than ideal landing space is better than no space at all," she said.
Just around 7 p.m. Fusco spoted an ideal field that has already been cleared and waves to the woman in close proximity to the field for the OK to land which is enthusiastically received.
"Here we come," she called out and almost effortlessly it appeared on her part we were once again on solid ground. Fusco's ground crew rushed across the field to secure the balloon and allowed the passengers to exit before it was quickly taken apart to ensure we do not overstay our welcome. Everyone including the passengers pitched in to pack up the balloon in a timely fashion. We had landed in the middle of the field of Olynik Farms on River Road in Whately.
Custom dictates that when a pilot lands a balloon, a bottle of champagne is given to the person who okays the touchdown and in this case it was Lynn Zapata.
"There is an unspoken rule to take care of the landowner," said Fusco.
After a short ride back in the van, the sun had quickly set and now Fusco served a variety of hors d'oeuvres and lined up champagne glasses. She opened a bottle of Cook's Brut and passengers spent the better part of an hour sharing their impressions about the night flight. Klara Dienes had accompanied the ground crew as her husband was airborne and said when she saw his face after the flight she knew he was happy.
"He has been waiting for this for a long time," she said.
Since Dienes expressed the desire to return to the skies in the future preferably during the winter his wife hinted she may join him the next time.
All passengers were given the champagne glasses to take home as a memento of their flight.
Pioneer Valley Balloons is owned by a parent company, Northampton Aeronautics Inc., which is co-owned by Fusco and Robert J. Bacon of Westfield.
Ground crew members who assisted Fusco included Melling, Hunmiel Jones of Amherst, Victor Hoyt of Northampton, and P.J. Connor-Fusco of Northampton.
"Pioneer Valley Balloons is lucky to have competent, flexible ground crew members who are available with little notice and are always willing to help out in any way they can," said Fusco.
Pioneer Valley Balloons owns three balloons, two that hold four passengers and the pilot and measures 90,000 cubic feet, and one balloon that holds six passengers plus the pilot and measures 120,000 cubic feet. Balloons can soar as high as 10,000 feet, but they typically fly between 1,000 and 3,000 feet for balloon rides, according to Fusco.
Fusco does see repeat customers since many times a couple will get engaged in a balloon and return for an anniversary celebration. She added that a private flight for two can be arranged as well as a large group by flying several balloons on the date chosen (of course, weather permitting).
For more information on flight times and rates, call (413) 584-7980, ext. 12, or visit www.pioneervalleyballoons.com.
For a breathtaking journey of the valley and to experience its unique visual landscape there is no better way to truly appreciate it then from above.