Hot Air Ballooning
morning mist caresses a covey of homes below, freshening the
yet-undisturbed day. Whisper-soft gold ribbons brushed by an
unseen watercolorist rise from the eastern horizon. The day breaks.
Sparrows begin to twitter as the sun plays peek-a-boo among the gently
A small, dark window brightens. Then another light. The faintest
whiff of coffee.
A dog barks, coaxing the neighboring canine to chime in. A car shifts into gear.
The quietude is broken.
As Plano begins to awaken, a balloonist already has found
peace with the day.
of the wind
beautiful simplicity of a hot air balloon — the world's
first aviation device — still captivates the human imagination
more than 200 years after its inception.
According to balloon pilot Dana England Conklin ('88), balloonists
are more popular than the ice cream man. The colorful craft attract
bug-eyed kids, she says — and she ought to know.
was 9 or 10 years old, she and her parents would hop in the family
car and follow the crayon-bright bulbs that occasionally floated
above Plano. It was an unusual sight, and curiosity was the best
excuse for finding fun.
Conklin never dreamed she would get closer to the balloons than
gazing distance from a car window — but then that was before
the Legislature officially designated Plano
the Hot Air Balloon Capital of Texas.
Today, Conklin and her husband are the pilots of Too Cool, a bold,
sunglasses-wearing balloon seven stories high.
respects the challenge of working with natural elements. "I
think it's a lot easier to point something with
an engine and make it go than having to work with nature
to get somewhere," she says. "I prefer working with
wind, the sky, the sunrise, the sunset and Mother Earth."
Monitoring the weather, therefore, is an addiction. The Weather
Channel becomes more popular than ESPN, says Conklin, who categorizes
days as "flyable" or "unflyable." She even catches herself second-guessing
"Look out the window," Conklin tells her television
you see those clouds over there?"
Balloonists also develop the habit of being constantly on the watch
for very slight indicators of air movement. A fluttering flag is
a good indication of
a flyable day, but days when flags are flapping usually are unflyable.
Leaves and smoke are clear wind gauges, too. And if the trashcan
is rolling down the street, balloonists don't even think
about going up.
But when blue skies and gentle breezes beckon, life gets planned
On a recent
Sunday, Jill Johnson Shafer ('76), her family and crew
pulled their candy-cane-striped balloon, Jubilee, out of the
garage, fueled it with propane and embarked on an impromptu outing.
The preparation Shafer and other pilots go through is a spectator
sport in itself.
An open field, a school yard or a baseball diamond make excellent
launching points. However, since balloons go where the winds take
them, pilots can't simply turn around and fly home when they
are ready. They need crewmembers for
liftoff and to get back to the launch site.
A three- to six-person
crew helps the pilot attach the burner system to a 350-pound wicker
basket. Then they attach the balloon envelope or fabric. The crew
unpacks its 200-pound bag and drags it across the field downwind,
leaving behind a nylon trail of colorful tracksuit material.
Someone cranks up a fan with some oomph, and the fabric begins a
slow belly dance. Its body ripples gracefully in response to the
cool air — swirling, swelling and billowing. As it reaches
the right plumpness, the pilot blasts the burner flame into the mouth
of the envelope. The heated balloon gracefully balances itself in
an upright posture, fully inflated.
The crew holds the basket until the pilot and passengers are on board.
With thumbs up, the pilot fires a steady flame from the
burner. The balloon and the wind embrace each other, and the choreography
is a moment-to-moment improvisation. The wind is in control,
guiding the movement, direction and speed of the craft. Yet passengers
in the basket of the balloon experience little or no sensation
of movement — not even the wind kissing their cheek. There
is a healthy dose of serenity.
"We go where there's fun and beautiful flying," says
Her most memorable flights have been in the mountains in Angel
Fire, N.M., and Anchorage, Alaska. It was summer when she was in
Alaska, and her midnight flight gave her a glimpse of the sun setting
behind the peak of Mount McKinley — North America's
"It was just spectacular," she says. "Unbelievable."
Shafer also enjoys just going out with her family in Plano participating
in balloon rallies and taking up first-time flyers.
First-timers in the basket of a hot air balloon are often pilots' favorite
passengers. Pilots enjoy seeing the wonder on the faces of newbies
and watching them realize what balloonists already have discovered — common
structures and landmarks seen every day at street level take on new
beauty from above.
The fluorescent blue of backyard swimming pools. The architectural
element of crisscrossing roadways. The childlike playfulness of Hot
Wheel-sized cars. And sometimes, just sometimes, the faintest hint
of the Fort Worth skyline.
time the balloon is in the air, crewmembers are eyeballing it
from a chase vehicle — a pickup truck, van or car with
an equipment trailer — prominently stickered with "caution" decals.
It's not unusual for pilots to radio crewmembers — the
grounded adventurers — to notify them of a last-minute change
in the intended landing site. Pilots may have to bypass an elementary
schoolyard full of students, a field of zigzagging power lines
or a parking lot full of balloon-eating light poles in order to
The purpose of the decals becomes apparent. "Do we turn left?
Do we go right? Does a road actually get there?"
But once the pilot selects an appropriate landing space, the ground
crew requests landowner permission for the pilot to land. As the
pilot and passengers flex their knees slightly in anticipation
of a soft landing, the crew awaits them.
After hugging the air out of the envelope and packing it safely
away, an elated bunch retrace their steps home.
worry. Be happy.
may doubt they'd ever jump into a hot air balloon. But
even pilots are sometimes afraid of heights.
Shafer describes her nose as the one stuck in the door of a glass
elevator — last one on, first one off — and never pressed
against windows of any floor above third. Plus, she won't
be caught on tall bridges. Yet, the sensation is different in a balloon,
Pilot Sandy Graf ('02), who is afraid of elevators, cliffs
and skyscrapers, once asked a psychiatrist passenger in the basket
of her balloon, Up or Down, how someone afraid of heights could enjoy
She learned that, as the pilot, firing the burner to ascend and venting
the balloon to descend give her a sense of control. Others find security
in feeling no movement as they drift with the wind. The basket becomes
a safe haven.
"I've flown people afraid of heights who were hanging over the
side of the basket enjoying themselves by the end of the flight,"
12 years old when she saw her first globed silhouette against
a blue Iowa sky. Flying a balloon became her lifelong dream.
Although a love of flying brings balloon enthusiasts together,
a sense of community and camaraderie unites them. They each have
their life stories. Conklin coordinates marketing and special events.
Shafer is a teacher. Graf flies balloons for a living. They know
other balloonists who are librarians, doctors, accountants, CEOs — people
from every walk of life.
"Once you talk to them and know them, they're family," says
The pastime even has its sentimental moments. Crew members fall
in love and get married, as in the case of Conklin and Shafer and
into the sunset, of course, is a romantic way to end an evening.
The day cools. The winds calm. There are no pagers. No fuss.
Oranges and purples blend into blushing shadows. With a final wink,
the fiery ball slips beneath the western horizon.
The balloon, like an exclamation point, punctuates a poetic sky.