Hot-Air Balloons Deliver Breaktaking Views, Thrills

Article excerpt

The blur resulting from a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call lifts about the same time the sun begins to rise from behind the Laurel Mountains.

Early-morning fog still lingers in the valleys, unwilling to relinquish its hold on the day. Silence surrounds Greensburg, while most of the town sleeps. Dew covers the lawns, with nary a footprint on them. Street lamps cast no shadows.

The only sign of life comes from a 24-hour mini-mart gas station. The roads are empty.

But the sky soon will be filled.

These are the days John Addison lives for. This is when he thrives.

"It's a perfect day to fly," he says in a British accent, his tobacco-stained teeth clenching down on half of an unlit cigar.

Addison, 54, a native of Nottingham, England, is the Robin Hood of hot-air ballooning: He steals rich, breathtaking views from the skies and delivers them in the confines of a rectangular wicker basket.

He has navigated the winds 1,000 feet above the ground -- sometimes higher -- for three decades and has served as the chief pilot of Greensburg-based Ragge & Willow since 1979.

He is a lone ranger, of sorts, in the Pittsburgh region. While the hot-air balloon business soared, so to speak, in the late 1980s, with as many as 40 companies offering services, it has been reduced to just a handful of outfits -- Addison's being the largest, with 15 balloons costing upward of $90,000 apiece.

Like most aviation industries, Addison says, hot-air ballooning was crippled by 9/11 because people were afraid to leave the ground.

Yet, on days like this, when the sun quickly erases the morning chill and the breeze blows lightly, Addison can be found in a field, assembling his aircraft, preparing for flight.

'I like a little more wind'

A white van with its rear doors open slowly pulls away, and a large nylon balloon -- or envelope, as those in the hot-air balloon industry call it -- falls limply to the wet grass.

Brandon Sillaman, 25, of Latrobe, and Jerry Byzon, 56, of Herminie, quickly unravel the 90,000-cubic-feet balloon and spread it across a ballfield in Youngwood that Addison chose for this morning's launch.

Addison begins prepping the wicker basket, and a co-worker releases a small, hand-held, helium-filled balloon into the air to gauge wind direction.

"There's not much wind today," Addison says. "I like a little more wind than this."

It is particularly calm, with breezes not exceeding 3 knots, or about 1 1/2 mph. Between 4 mph and 5 mph is ideal, he says.

Most pilots fly in the mornings and evenings, when the wind is at its calmest. Lifting off in the afternoons is too unpredictable, making it unsafe, Addison says.

Addison prefers flying in the mornings, although he will make chartered and corporate flights in the evenings. Flights can be scheduled year-round, weather permitting.

"I love morning flights," he says, still chomping on his cigar. "The only thing I don't like is getting out of bed. We're up at 4:30 every morning."

Soon after waking, Addison calls the Federal Aviation Administration to check weather and wind speeds aloft. A member of his team sends up numerous helium balloons throughout the morning to monitor wind directions.

By 6:30 a.m., an office worker usually meets passengers at a predetermined location and directs them to the Ragge & Willow headquarters near Westmoreland Mall.

It takes about 20 minutes to prepare a balloon for flight, the last 10 of which are spent filling the envelope with air blown from a large, gasoline-powered floor fan.

The balloon, now attached to the basket, grows larger and larger, fighting to push itself off the ground.

Addison, who often pilots a green Parkvale Bank balloon that the company gave to Ragge & Willow for advertising purposes, points a large propane tank toward the mouth of the balloon. …