“We are the wind. I’m in awe of the feeling in the air because it feels like you are standing still and the earth is moving beneath you,” said Jim Cusick, hot air balloon pilot and member of the Central Ohio Balloon Club.
Jim is a second-generation balloon pilot who competes around the country. His wife, Laura, is training to become a pilot and his young kids, Ben and Payton are part of the crew helping with take-off, in-flight spotting and landing. For the Cusicks, ballooning is family affair but it enthralls an community of travelers and pilots who come out to enjoy hot air balloons at Ohio festivals and on random Saturdays when they float through the skies.
There is a lot involved in getting the giant balloons into the air. The first step is determining current wind conditions in order to fly the balloon in the targeted trajectory.
Jim begins watching the weather several days before a scheduled flight but since conditions can change quickly, especially in Ohio, he does a pi-ball test before determining his launch point. The pi-ball is a small helium balloon that Jim launches into the air to gauge accurate wind direction. With the help of electronic instruments he determines wind speed and direction at different altitudes so he knows where to launch the balloon in order to follow his predetermined course.
Next, the launch site is selected. For this flight it is small parking lot that is perfect for getting the large RE/MAX balloon lifted in the proper direction of the wind. Jim’s family and crew members employ me to unfold the massive balloon and Velcro the parachute valve into the top and begin filling it with air. As the balloon inflates everyone prepares for launch and things happen quickly once the balloon is standing upright and the burners start.
We hop into the basket and with one burst of the burners: liftoff. The wind picks up the balloon, the ambient noise becomes silent and we sync with nature, soaring over small communities, waving to the people below and feeling almost eye-level with the sun.
Surprisingly, floating is so silent, outside of the burners,that you can hear the radio music from cars passing down below. Watching fellow riders excitedly run outside to wave at you as you rise is an equally beautiful moment. Though this is a common occurrence for the Cusicks, flowing in a balloon the size of a house a thousand feet from the air is surreal, and the excitement radiated from everyone as if experiencing it for the first time.
Landing is another process. The chase team on the ground (Jim’s family) radios for potential obstructions like power lines and scouts landing spots in the flight path. Jim targets a small patch of grass between two condominium buildings no bigger than a highway median. His precise landing and laying of the massive balloon is a testament to the skill and expertise required to pilot these majestic objects.
For those who are curious and interested in becoming a part of the ballooning community it is relatively easy to get involved. There are three main ways to do it.
Joining a balloon club is an easy way to meet other pilots and hobbyists, make contacts and find opportunities to become more involved in the ballooning community in Ohio.
“Whether you are learning to fly or are licensed, getting involved in a balloon club can help with connections to prepare you,” said Laura Cusick.
Volunteer on a crew
Joining a balloon crew is one of the best ways to get involved and get hands-on experience. Volunteers are always needed and you can participate no matter what your experience level. Volunteers are needed to help with preparing the balloon for flight, putting weight on the basket for stability, navigating as a spotter, driving to follow the balloon and helping the land and pack the balloon.
“Preparing is the easy part. The launch is the easy part. When you land, that’s when we need help,” says Laura.
Volunteers are always welcome on crews and extra hands are always needed.
Community Ballooning Events
Heading out to one of the many community ballooning events in Ohio is another easy way to see balloons up-close, get involved or take a ride. Balloon festival season in Ohio generally runs from May through October in communities throughout the state including Coshocton, Middletown, Canton, Toledo, Findlay and Ashland.
“Balloon events are community-driven. Most are free to the public and we see people who are even 90 to 100-years old wanting to fly,” said Laura.
The public events allow visitors to participate in various ways from taking paid rides to trying a tethered ride that keeps the balloon stationary but still allows riders the experience of going up into the air.
Every day and every experience in a hot air balloon is different because the physical and natural dynamics constantly change. Ohio has a thriving ballooning community and an enthusiastic spirit to get families and communities involved more involved in this fascinating hobby.