Up, up and away | VailDaily.com

Up, up and away

Nic Corbett
AE Hot Air Balloons3 SM 6-22-06

GYPSUM – As the Camelot Balloons crew prepared nine hot-air balloons for take-off early Thursday morning, owner Merlin Sagon pointed to two small, yellow balloons he just inflated from a helium tank by the breakfast buffet table.”Everybody, what you see out there is just for show. This is how you’re going up,” said Sagon, provoking laughter from the crowd. Sagon later released the balloons into the air, and told his customers to watch their speed and direction in the layered wind currents, as well as how close the two balloons stay together. They would soon be experiencing the same, but in a balloon perhaps as large as a Goodyear blimp. “Keep in mind these things do not have steering wheels,” he said. “We go where the wind takes us. And, as such, we need to have a pretty good understanding of what Mother Nature is doing to us here this morning. So this is modern technology at work.”Carrying 65 people, the nine hot-air balloons took flight out of Buckhorn Valley, dotting the sky with just about every imaginable color. “We fly untied down, all free space,” said Todd “Redneck” Schweer, Camelot Balloons’ crew chief. “We fly wherever the wind takes us and come back and drink champagne.”

It was the largest take-off for Camelot Balloons since the 1988 festival Balloons, Blues and Barbecue by Nottingham Lake in Avon, Schweer said. Typically, the company takes two or three balloons up a day.”Today, especially, we have a large group here,” Sagon said. “So, we’re going to have a mini-balloon rally.”The busy season usually lasts from Memorial Day until the end of September, he said. With such a large fleet of balloons, the company had to enlist help from six hot-air balloon pilots from Aspen, Denver and New Mexico. One of these was the “ballooning king,” Johnny Lewis, originally from Abilene, Texas, who came to help Sagon. “He does the same for me,” said Lewis, who like Sagon and Schweer, wears a dusty cowboy hat. “We’ll swap out.”Lewis, who has his own hot-air balloon company in Santa Fe, N.M., has flown more than 60,000 hours in balloons.

“(Lewis is) the master,” Schweer said. “There’s only a few people in this (line of) work that know more than he does, and they’re pretty old farts.”In the 1960s, Lewis was inspired to create his own balloon after watching the 1914 movie “Round the World in 80 Days.” Using the skills he learned in his college home economics class, Lewis sewed one of the first modern-day hot-air balloons in the world, getting it off the ground in 1967 at age 19.”From the time I was about 12, I was dreaming about flying balloons,” Lewis said. “I never lost the dream and I never lost the thrill of doing it.”Either Disney or Fox will be making a feature-length film about Lewis’ struggle. Lewis, who just approved the script rewrite and sent it back to the studio, said about 90 percent of it is accurate.Hot-air balloon pilot John Hennigan, from Palm Springs, Fla., who was out on the field from about 6 a.m., said he loves his job, which helps support his “balloon habit.”

“Most people work 9 to 5,” Hennigan said. “We work 5 to 9. You get to do whatever you want for the rest of the day.”Those who fly say that the air is much calmer than they thought it would be. “There’s no turbulence up there,” Hennigan said. “It’s really calm, really gentle.”Although it was freezing on the ground, the heat from the burning propane fuel, which allows the balloon to rise, made those riding the balloons so hot they took off their jackets.The balloons covered about five to six miles in distance, but in various directions, and rose to about 3,000 feet, Sagon said. They then landed in the Bureau of Land Management forest.The balloon rides the Thursday morning group took typically cost $190 per person for about 40 minutes. A “full excursion,” which lasts at least an hour, costs $275 per adult, $225 for children ages 6 to 12 and seniors ages 65 and older.

Camelot Balloons has been taking customers on hot-air balloons rides in Eagle Valley for 17 years. They moved to Gypsum from Arrowhead in Edwards about four years ago. Few of the 65 customers seemed nervous as they climbed into the hot-air balloons. One, though, backed out at the last minute, saying the balloon was “too crowded.” “It’s probably by far and away the safest thing you can do in the valley,” Sagon said later that day, his voice hoarse from speaking loudly all morning. Nic Corbett can be reached at vdeditintern@vaildaily.comVail, Colorado

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