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BALLOON QUEST An air of optimism despite weather



Published: Sat, July 16, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The balloonists will try to go up one more time this morning.

NEW CASTLE, Pa -- It takes more than a little bad weather to deflate a balloonist.

An evening hot-air balloon launch fell victim to summer storms Saturday at the Western Pennsylvania Balloon Quest at Scotland Meadows Park in Union Township.

But the 22 balloons that gathered here for this weekend's rally did get to go up at 6 a.m. Saturday, and for a balloonist, any time you can get in the air, it's a good day.

"These things are gentle giants," said Louis Merryman of New Castle, a pilot on the Stairway to Heaven balloon team. "And they bring out the kid in all of us. Little kids see them and jump up and down, and adults turn into kids."

Saturday morning's launch was a "hare and hound," Merryman said. That's a maneuver in which one balloon is launched ahead of the rest and the others give chase.

Participating balloonists said that it's quite a sight when you get almost two dozen of the 40-feet-wide-by-60-feet-high propane-fueled balloons aloft. Depending on the weather, a ride can last from one to five hours.

'Magic carpet ride'

"It's as close to a magic carpet ride as you'll ever come," said Bill Thompson of Brunswick Hills. He and his wife, Kathy, pilot a balloon called Shared Magic, and the story of how they got into ballooning was typical of others at the rally.

They went from taking a ride on someone else's balloon -- their first one was at the 1980 Kentucky Derby -- to becoming a crew member for a friend, to piloting their own craft.

Like all balloonists, the Thompsons had to obtain a Federal Aviation Agency license, and must meet the same requirements for pilots of a fixed-wing aircraft. Both also hold commercial pilots' licenses.

"The difference is that wherever you land becomes an airport," said Kathy Thompson with a smile, noting that it's good balloon etiquette to get permission from owners of private property that's a potential landing site.

Each ride can be a different experience, depending on air conditions and locale, said Diane Greathouse of Eastlake, who with her husband, Dan, pilots the Kilroy Hot Air Balloon.

"It can be the most mellow experience or the most adventurous thing in the world," she said. "The sightseeing is great. You can see forever."

The balloonists also say they enjoy the rallies they go to as a social activity. Events for participants included a costume contest, a fire hose fight and a scavenger hunt.

After the evening balloon launch was canceled, a crew made an attempt to inflate (don't ever say "blow up" to a balloonist) an 84 Lumber balloon to show the crowd how it is done, but gusting winds made even that a risky proposition, and so it was scratched.

Weather permitting, the balloons will go up one more time at a 6 a.m. launch today, the start of a final day of activities.

Today's schedule also includes a church service at the park, a Life Flight helicopter demo, a concert by the Lawrence County Orchestra and a closing fireworks display at 10 p.m.




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