Walking on Air
By Chelsea Holden Baker | Photographs by Kristin Teig
We did not take to the sky like a bird. We did not soar. We were born aloft in the lightest sense of the word—like a spore or downy seed. And we felt that small, with the world spread out below us, the silence around us revealing a character in the air unknown on the ground. We looked down with birds’ eyes but could not control our direction. We were left to the whims of the wind and there was no friction.
Balloons are the original flying machines. When the first manned flights took place in 1783, it was so unexpected to see anything other than clouds and birds in the sky that, upon landing, the aeronauts had to offer champagne to pitchfork-wielding villagers to quell the uproar (or so the story goes). And those balloons were much quieter than modern-day behemoths. My first encounter with a hot-air balloon—at about age four—had me frozen on the family deck, waiting for a fire-breathing dragon to emerge beyond the trees; it was the only thing that made sense to match what I was hearing but could not yet see. The sound of the burner, stoked by the pilot to release propane and increase the air temperature inside the envelope, is like a breath. And that was probably my biggest surprise when I went up the first time: balloons feel alive.
On the night before you climb into what looks like a breadbasket attached to giant bag, you’re thinking about mechanics, not poetics. You’re focused on the things people often talk about after a balloon ride: the flying and maybe the landing. (As Richard Branson, Virgin CEO and avid balloonist, wrote in his book Reach for the Skies, “Half the art of ballooning is to make your crashes so gentle that you can fool yourself into calling them landings.”) But it turns out that the preparation builds anticipation and enhances the excitement, especially if you’re on “dawn patrol,” prepping for flight in the dark.
Photographer Kristin Teig and I sign up to fly with pilot Joe Shevenell, who owns and runs Hot Fun based in South Portland. Shevenell has logged more than 1,850 hours manning balloons. He has flown in all fifty states. He has seen Maine’s version of the big five—black bear, moose, deer, coyote, and fox—from the air. But his safaris have also taken him over NFL stadiums in Philadelphia, Detroit, Nashville, and other cities as the “roadie pilot” of the Lone Plains Drifter, the massive balloon owned by the country music duo Brooks and Dunn. (Before becoming a superstar, Kix Brooks lived in Yarmouth and befriended Shevenell through flying.)
Jimmy Spears, Shevenell’s “ambassador on the ground” (i.e., chase-team leader), assures us that Joe is the man to fly—and land—with. “I’ve seen him put down the balloon on an I-beam—literally,” Spears says.
“He could put it down on an eggshell.” Shevenell takes a more modest tack: “I haven’t had to land on water, but I have been towed to shore. You’re better off trying to swim than being electrocuted.” He is a safety-first, stories-second kind of guy—anecdotes are always delivered with a lesson.
We rendezvous before first light. At 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday, just off the highway in Portland, Spears pulls out a black latex “PI ball” (pilot’s information balloon). The idea is to send up the birthday balloon to observe the way the wind is acting at different altitudes, a real-time experiment to confirm reports from the National Weather Service’s Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS). We have a laugh when we realize Shevenell is the only one fully awake. Gesturing to the pitch-black sky, he says, “You might want a white balloon.” Spears roots around for one, fills it with helium, and I set it free. We track it with our eyes as it travels up and east. Shevenell does the time, distance, and direction estimates in his head, and draws where we’ll likely launch and land on a laminated map. We all pile into Rosie, the red GMC Sierra Classic kitted out with navigational gadgets and personality.
We stop at another PI ball release in a parking lot and move on. Spears comments on the movement of American flags as we pass them. These guys know the wind. They both come from serious sailing backgrounds; in fact, Spears was on the crew that still holds the record for the Monhegan Island Race. I ask them if it’s at all unnerving to contend with another axis in the air—at least in sailing you stay on one plane—but they are both unflappable in any element.
We stop at Tory Hill in Buxton, and then things happen fast. All four of us don gloves and lend a hand. We unload the basket from the custom lift on Rosie’s rear, and Spears swings the car around to illuminate the field as we unfurl eighty feet of balloon fabric across the dewy grass. This is usually when Shevenell pulls out a boom box and the Sousa marches start, but we skip that step, eager to beat the sun into the sky.
It takes two people to dismount the huge red fan from Rosie’s grill. It has a beautiful wooden blade that is powerful enough to partially inflate the balloon with cold air. Kristin and I open the skirt, straining to hold it above our heads for several minutes. The blast of heat we feel when Shevenell “pokes the flame” into the envelope adds a jolt of adrenaline that keeps our arms up as the balloon begins to stir.
And then, she’s alive. We throw our legs over the basket and we’re off. In about one minute we’re 300 feet above the ground.
After the second-ever manned balloon flight, the one Ben Franklin witnessed and that is marvelously described in Richard Holmes’s book The Age of Wonder, the Age of Beauty, Dr. Alexandre Charles, who flew in a balloon of his own design, wrote: “Nothing will ever quite equal that moment of total hilarity that filled my whole body at the moment of take-off. I felt we were flying away from the Earth and all its troubles for ever [sic]. It was not mere delight. It was a sort of physical ecstasy. My companion Monsieur Robert murmured to me—‘I’m finished with the Earth. From now on it’s the sky for me! Such utter calm. Such immensity!’”
Of course, many things have changed since then. Our balloon, Skybox, has an envelope made of Dacron and lines made of Kevlar, but the basket is still wicker. The uprights are wrapped in suede. The instruments have dials rather than digital displays, and the pocket of hot air above our heads keeps us warm. It’s all comfortably comprehensible. Despite the facts that today we can get a bird’s-eye view of virtually anywhere, that airplanes are a common form of transportation, that humans have mastered flight to the extent that aeronauts became astronauts who can look back at the entire Earth, the delight and euphoria of flying in a balloon are the same as they have always been.
We are floating over places I’ve known my whole life, but only from the ground. The stark silence is occasionally broken by birdsong that floats up instead of down. There are a surprising number of hidden ponds beneath us. We pass directly over one, and things feel topsy-turvy: the reflection of the balloon that looms so large above us looks even smaller than the tiny houses down below us. We’re half a mile up.
There are a few moves that Shevenell likes to include during a flight: one is the “touch-and-go,” a term that comes from aviation (he is also a licensed airplane pilot). He picks out a new housing development with a few open lots around a cul-de-sac and pulls down on the vent line to release hot air from the deflation vent in the top of the balloon. We descend, and it looks like we are on the ground, but we’re moving across it—we can hear the basket brushing the grass—and then we are going up again. We squeal with delight, and Shevenell laughs because you can tell from his grin and the sparkle in his eyes that he loves it too. We hear voices and see a man and woman peeking out from a second story window in a house below. We all wave and they yell “Have fun!” or it may have been “Hot Fun!”—it’s hard to tell. Shevenell started Hot Fun in 1983 and has carried more than 3,000 passengers since then, so it really could be either.
When the sun breaks over the horizon and turns the clouds pink, the panoramic view encompasses Portland to the left and the Scarborough marsh to the right. The three of us fall silent for a while. Kristin’s camera clicks. Soon it’s time to break the silence, as Shevenell and Spears radio each other to discuss possible landing locations. An hour has gone by much too quickly.
We are headed for an industrial sand yard when I give a little prayer not to touch down—I have a vision of our return to earth in a sunny field, not a gravel pit. We’re not positioned properly, so Shevenell redirects our sights to the Hannaford Corporate Campus, and now I’m praying out loud. The wind shifts us off course and Shevenell recalculates. We’re headed for a small farm, but the landing is tight. My heart leaps with glee. This place is so right, we have to make it. Shevenell tells us to brace ourselves as we crest the tree line, using the upper branches as brakes against the bottom of the basket.
We drop into a perfect Maine scene: a John Deere tractor on the edge of a small cornfield in front of a lobsterman’s house with traps stacked outside. Everything is golden. We land on grass with two gentle bumps.
We’ve traveled only 12 miles over the past hour and a few minutes, so Spears has beaten us there without breaking any traffic laws in his “chase” car. We float the balloon across the field, holding on to her tethers, and it actually feels terrible, like we are subduing a beautiful creature, a cross between a butterfly and an elephant. We’re no longer feeding her fire, and her light has gone out. As she flattens against the ground, her colors deepen. Her breath is gone—there’s no more movement. The fabric is ponderously heavy in our arms as we pack it into a canvas sack. When we cinch it up, the brown bag looks like some kind of chrysalis. We leave quietly after depositing a bottle of champagne and a note that begins “Dear friend…” on the lobsterman’s doorstep.
We drive for a few minutes and settle on a school parking lot for our picnic spot. Spears and Shevenell do-si-do around each other as they set up the spread in front of Rosie. The Sousa starts playing, and the champagne and orange juice flow. We have worked as a team, and now we feel like friends. As we talk, we watch a man flying a model airplane in the ball field. When he walks back to the parking lot he calls out to us: “Did you fly today?”