Gain a new perspective — go ballooning

Published 2:08 am Sunday, March 20, 2011

Local balloonists have been seen flying in our area and this has prompted many calls to the Item as well as texts from staff members asking: Did you see them? Who are they? Where do they take off and land at?

What began as a public appeal through the Item for information on area balloonists seen flying over Picayune and Poplarville, ended in an amazing adventure, meeting the nicest group of people, and an education in the huge responsibility flying a hot air balloon really is.

After my appeal, an e-mail arrived in my inbox from Robert Homes, telling me he was the balloonist I had previously photographed from the interstate and published in the paper. He explained that there was a group of local balloonists and he would be happy to introduce me to Martin and Pam Booda, as they have been flying a lot longer than him.

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E-mails were exchanged between Homes, Martin Booda and myself that culminated in my invitation to fly with them. The only problem was my fear of heights! After encouragement from all involved, I decided to take them up on their offer and the following is my experience.

In the world of ballooning there are always “tentative” plans. A balloonist doesn’t just hop in and go up. Lift off depends on weather, air currents and if the crew can get together. The balloon crew are people that get up extremely early in the morning to help handle the basket, roll out and inflate the up to 250 lb. balloon itself (which is call an envelope), help with set up, and chase the balloon once it is in the air.

Once everything came together, I got the O.K. to bring my friend, April Holifield, with me. This was a precaution in case I felt the  need to go into a fetal position once up in the air. Somehow the possibility of crashing with Holifield made me feel better. I think it made my pilot, Martin Booda, feel better as well to know that he could focus on flying and let Holifield deal with me.

We met in Ryan’s parking lot at the appointed time for our first flight. Homes and the Boodas’ put us right at ease. With Homes and his passenger Josh Mobley following with Homes’ experimental balloon in tow, we went to pick up the remaining couple in the Gravity’s Rainbow crew. We made good use of our time by getting to know our pilot.

Booda has been flying for 14 years. He met his wife, Pam, through ballooning. When they married at the Castle, in Franklinton, La., they rode away from their ceremony in his balloon, Gravity’s Rainbow.

He said, “The South East ballooning community is a very tight group. I have met great people through ballooning either through the sport itself or as a byproduct of my aerial photography. Sometimes I will take photo’s of someone’s property as I fly and leave them the developed photograph in their mailbox. I have a good friend that I met while leaving his photograph in his mailbox for him.”

Booda even lands his balloon in this friend’s field, from time to time.

“We go to the festivals; the big one is in Albuquerque, N.M. Most of the time, we fly in Pearl River County and the Northern part of Hancock County. We go to the upwind corner and fly toward the center of the thermal currents,” he said.

“I talk to the Weather Bureau and use every bit of technology available to check windspeeds and currents. Before we take off, we are going to release a black balloon, called a “pie ball” up in the air to check the current directions of air flow and the accuracy of the information we have.”

Booda said, “The way you steer a balloon is by going to different altitudes to catch that wind current. There are many things in common with sailing; the difference is the less wind the better when you go up in your balloon.”

We got to the home of Booda’s crew, Mark and Sharon McCormick. Sometimes Booda lifts off from their field. They were outside waiting for us with their cups of coffee. True to his word, Booda released a pie ball into the air so they could check wind directions.

From there, we rode to the field where we would actually be lifting off from. By this time, April was excited and I was a little nauseous from nerves. I reflected on my life insurance policy and the fact that if this was the last thing I ever did, I was sure to be the only Lifestyles Editor to leave the Item employment in this manner.

We arrived at the field and discovered that Booda has an electric lift on the back of his truck for his basket. The basket was drug off the lift and laid on its side. They then got out a large canvas bag that held the envelope for the basket. The bag appeared large until I realized it was holding the thing that was going to keep me up in the air. My knees were a little weakened. April seemed O.K. with everything so far; I decided against locking myself in their truck and not opening the doors until someone agreed to take me back to Ryan’s. Between taking photos I even helped a little.

The grass had a light layer of frost on it and I began to feel much better as I saw the balloons inflate. There was a beauty in the process of filling the balloons with the propane torches and a comfort in the way that everyone pulled together for the benefit of a third of the group to go up in the air.

I felt better, and that lasted the entire time the balloons were filling. It ended upon my turn to get in the basket. This was an adventure all in itself; I got in and could not believe that Pam did that in her wedding dress and heals! I gave Pam’s hand a quick squeeze as we started to lift off. I looked to Homes’ balloon that was already taking off. We were on our way now, as well.

The ride was like nothing we had ever experienced before. It was movement while we stood perfectly still. There was no breeze and the sun felt warm. It was quiet. Booda showed us the strings that are attached to the spine of the balloon which helped him navigate and instructed me to never grab onto them. I did as I was told!

From our vantage point we saw the layout of the land and ponds. There were beautiful gardens and livestock below us. The animals would look at us but Booda made sure to use his “whisper” valve so we would not frighten them.

Homes had told us, “Balloonists are  very conscientious of landowners and landowner relations. When we fly, we are constantly looking ahead for fields which may harbor livestock and we try to either avoid those areas or overfly them high enough as not to cause harm to the animals. We are indebted to the landowner because without his/her understanding and acceptance the sport would not be possible.”

We learned that balloonists use visual markers to navigate such as water towers.

Our ride came to an end much to soon. We could have stayed up there for hours. The crew had chased us on the road and were waiting for us when we came down in a friend’s field. We landed on our side and they sprang into action. They helped us out of the balloon and we began disassembly. Homes did not land in the same field, so we called to make sure that they were O.K. His crew said they were fine, so we went back to the business of packing and loading.

It was a wonderful experience and we had another experience when we got back to the Ryan’s parking lot. We were initiated into the ballooning family— as all balloonists are after their first ride. I am not saying what happened. If you want to know you have to ride!