Sports, Thrill of Victory

Up, Up and Away: The art of hot air ballooning

We meet in the parking lot of the shopping center that won’t open for almost four hours – two guys with a white van and a giant basket, and a family of four from Hawaii, about to take their first ride in a hot air balloon.

A couple of hot air balloons end their evening trips in a field north of Franklin. PHOTO BY BILL HOBBS

A couple of hot air balloons end their evening trips in a field north of Franklin. PHOTO BY BILL HOBBS

It’s 43°, and the Williamson County skies are still dark. Balloon pilot Jake Thomas releases a white helium-filled balloon to test the wind direction, which helps determine where the flight will begin.

Minutes later, we’re driving south on I-65 to Saturn Parkway and then on Port Royal Road into Spring Hill. As the skies lighten, Thomas and his assistant set up the balloon, first setting up the basket, attaching a GoPro camera, getting the fuel and burners ready, then laying the basket on its side and attaching the balloon, stretched out across the field across from a Kroger store.

Then, as a high-speed fan quickly fills the formerly flat balloon with air, the burners are fired, heating that air and quickly lifting the balloon – and the basket – upright.

It’s time to fly.

Just five minutes after sunrise, the yellow-and-red balloon is airborne and carrying David and Sumi Flagg of Hawaii and their two teenage sons northeast across Williamson County.

Hot air balloons are a common site in the skies of Middle Tennessee, especially over Williamson County during the spring, summer and fall.

The red-and-yellow balloon carrying the Flagg family is one of six balloons operated by Middle Tennessee Hot Air Adventures, owned by Leiper’s Fork entrepreneur and balloon pilot Logan Bedford. Hot Air Adventures is one of a handful of ventures offering hot air balloon rides in the Nashville area. Unlike most of the others, however, Bedford’s is a full-time, year-round business, not just part-time, weekend or seasonal. His balloons vary in size – some can carry as many as 10 passengers.

“Most balloonists are just hobbyists, and they take passengers every now and then to help pay for their hobby,” says Bedford. But his company offers sunrise and sunset balloon rides year-round in the Nashville area, and also for about five months a year in the Las Vegas area.

A couple of hot air balloons end their evening trips in a field north of Franklin. PHOTO BY BILL HOBBS

A couple of hot air balloons end their evening trips in a field north of Franklin. PHOTO BY BILL HOBBS

He relocates part of his business from Music City to Sin City for part of the year because cold weather reduces demand for flights in Nashville, he says – although it is rarely actually too cold in Middle Tennessee for an enjoyable flight.

Also, he said, temperature inversions are common in Middle Tennessee in the winter, meaning it can be significantly warmer aloft than at ground level. “You can actually feel it warm up as you go higher.”

Bedford learned to fly from his dad, Henry Bedford, who still flies balloons for his son’s business from time to time. While ballooning is a very old sport, technology is changing it in ways that can make for a better experience for both passengers and pilot. While old-school balloonists fly by experience – and the Federal Aviation Administration requires balloonists to be visual-flight certified – newer technology such as iPads with apps for maps, weather, and wind speed and direction aloft make it possible for pilots to give customers a better, safer and more enjoyable experience, Bedford says.

“We keep an iPad in the balloon and one in the van – any time we look at the map, we can see the other person on that map. If I’m in the balloon, I can look at that map and know where the crew is, and vice versa. If we go behind a hill, they can still see where we are.”

Balloonists often steer by rising in altitude to find wind currents going in different areas. Sometimes they can hover virtually still, in a valley. The iPad maps allow the driver of the chase van to knew where the balloon is, even if he can’t see it. A different app on the pilot’s iPad makes it possible to see wind direction at different altitudes, so they don’t have to rise and descend in order to hunt for the right wind to steer the balloon where they wish to fly it.

Weather radar accessible on the iPad contributes to flight safety, and the map app also shows both available landing sites and the different airspace zones around Middle Tennessee.

As a side benefit, Bedford says, the iPad apps make it possible to save a flight profile and map, and email it to the customer “so they can have a profile of their flight.”

Jake Thomas, a pilot with Middle Tennessee Hot Air Adventures, prepares for liftoff with the family of David and Sumi Flagg of Hawaii in the basket for a sunrise balloon trip over Williamson County in mid-March. PHOTO BY BILL HOBBS

Jake Thomas, a pilot with Middle Tennessee Hot Air Adventures, prepares for liftoff with the family of David and Sumi Flagg of Hawaii in the basket for a sunrise balloon trip over Williamson County in mid-March. PHOTO BY BILL HOBBS

Most flights are around sunrise or within two hours of sunset, since winds are usually calmer and less “swirly” than during the middle of the day. Besides sunrise and sunset flights, Bedford offers “dawn patrol” flights where you take off about 45 minutes before sunrise and fly through the sunrise. “That’s our most unique flight,” Bedford says. The FAA allows “dawn patrol” flights if the balloon is equipped with lights so it is visible to other aircraft.

People have been flying hot air balloons since 1783 – 120 years before the Wright brothers’ first airplane flight.

Today, the FAA regulates hot air balloons as it regulates any other aircraft. Hot air balloon pilots must be certified, and the balloons must have an air worthiness certificate, Bedford says. The FAA inspects the balloons used for commercial ventures after 100 hours of flight time or at least once a year.

Accidents are rare, but they do happen, so pilots must demonstrate proficiency in emergency skills. They must also demonstrate an ability to operate the balloon for licensure purposes and then go through a flight review every two years.

“Ballooning is normally a very safe, routine activity,” said Glen Moyer, editor of Ballooning magazine, the in-house publication of the 2,200-member Balloon Federation of America, in a recent USA Today article. “It’s an activity that thousands of people participate in all the time and do so safely.”

There are an estimated 7,500 hot air balloons operating in the United States. Recreational ballooning has grown sharply since 1964, when there were only six hot air balloons registered with the FAA.

Middle Tennessee is considered a “tight” flying area for hot air balloons because there is very little truly open land – which is why Hot Air Adventures’ flights take off from different locations, depending on the wind speed and direction. In the future, the growth of the Middle Tennessee region may eventually push balloonists to start their flights further out than Franklin or Spring Hill. Part of the problem is that most of the rural fields that might look like good places to land are actually behind fences and locked gates, making it impossible for the chase van to get to the landing site to recover the balloon and passengers.

“We’re trying to work with the city to get some ability to use the city parks – to secure some more options,” but as growth continues, “it’s going to push us farther and farther away.”

Hot air balloon owned by Robert Grimes of Ace High Ballooning flies over historic Harlinsdale Farm in Franklin in April 2013. PHOTO BY BILL HOBBS

Hot air balloon owned by Robert Grimes of Ace High Ballooning flies over historic Harlinsdale Farm in Franklin in April 2013. PHOTO BY BILL HOBBS

“In the future, I see it that we might have to go down past Columbia to fly up and land in Spring Hill, or we might be going to south Leiper’s Fork to fly toward Spring Hill,” he says. “I don’t see it as a major negative thing. We live out in Leiper’s Fork, and there’s tons of room out there. We can always fly out there. The reason we come in to Franklin is it is really easy for people to just get off the interstate and meet us – and more people are from that area. We try to mix it so we have some countryside and some where we fly into the city.”

While tourism is a huge part of the local economy, Bedford says most of his business comes from local residents, “people who just want to see where they live from a different perspective,” and “our business has increased quite a bit over the last three or four years.”

All those passengers get to see Middle Tennessee from a perspective you can’t get in a car – or even from the tallest hotel or office building. The typical balloon flight goes to about 2,000 feet. If you are in a gondola beneath a hot air balloon at that altitude over Franklin, you can see the tall towers of downtown Nashville.

“That’s a cool view,” Bedford says. “At about 1,000 feet, maybe 800, 900 feet, you start to see the tops of the tall buildings, and at about 1,500 feet you see the whole central basin area down there. The rolling hills are just beautiful – this is a really beautiful place to fly.

“I’ve flown all over the world. I’ve flown in France and New Zealand, I’ve flown in Albuquerque, I’ve flown in Vegas, I’ve flown in South Carolina and Kansas City and all over, and I still love Middle Tennessee – it’s just beautiful.”