By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
If I ever write a book about my fantastic ballooning adventures, which I will dedicate to Jules Verne even though he is dead and can’t sue me, I am going to call it "Around the Island in Five Minutes." That’s because I recently spent several days trying to arrange a hot-air balloon ride that turned out to be the shortest flight since the Wright brothers barely got off the ground in the first airplane more than a century ago.
My incredible journey began at 5 a.m. on a calm and mild Thursday at Taylor Farm Park in Norwalk, Conn., where nearly a dozen balloonists had gathered for a race across Long Island Sound to the North Shore of Long Island, N.Y., for the official kickoff of the Metro NY Balloon and Music Festival.
I was assigned to a balloon piloted by Jon Thompson, 44, of Kissimmee, Fla., who flies for the Children’s Miracle Network, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for children’s hospitals. "I fly a balloon better than I drive a car," said Thompson, who got his balloon pilot’s license before he got his driver’s license.
That made me a little less nervous because his balloon was 70 feet high and 60 feet across and could fly up to 16,000 feet. Ordinarily, I don’t like to be any higher off the ground than the top of my head. And in this case, I’d be over water.
"If we run out of hot air," crew chief Pat Woods said after the balloon was inflated with propane, "we’re expecting you to provide a backup supply."
I never got a chance because the race was called off. "The conditions on the ground may seem perfect," explained Bill Corbett, the public relations man for the balloon festival, "but the winds above us are blowing west." That meant we’d be carried about 50 miles to LaGuardia Airport in New York City.
"We wouldn’t want to be hit by a 747," Thompson said. "We’d lose our frequent flyer miles." As a consolation, he said he would take me for a ride the next morning at the festival, which was held at Brookhaven Calabro Airport in Brookhaven, N.Y.
Unfortunately, the ride was called on account of rain. Saturday at 5 a.m., I showed up at the festival and was told that, even though conditions seemed good, the Federal Aviation Administration wouldn’t let any of the balloons fly. I went back with my wife at 6 p.m. only to find out that Thompson wasn’t even being allowed to inflate his balloon.
Sunday, the last day of the festival, I was back at 6 a.m., but some pretty-boy meteorologist from Eyewitness News was doing a series of live reports with Thompson, effectively killing any chances I had of flying with him.
Thompson kindly put me in touch with a fellow pilot, Bob Carlton, who was flying his balloon several miles to the east. I drove out to the middle of farm country and spotted Carlton’s balloon in a field, where he was waiting to pick me up. I parked at a vegetable stand and trudged through a gigantic cabbage patch, ruining my shoes in the process.
"Welcome aboard!" Carlton said cheerily as I climbed into the basket, which contained Carlton; his wife, Harriet; and their passengers, Steve Socko and his girlfriend, Dina Selimaj. Carlton, who used to fly the Mickey Mouse balloon at Disney World, now owns Balloons and Beyond in Polk City, Fla.
As the balloon ascended and started to fly, a feeling of exhilaration came over me. There, several hundred feet below us, lay a carpet of lush green farmland that stretched for miles in all directions. My reverie was snapped about two minutes later, when Carlton said, "I have to look for a place to land." My first thought was: Is that all there is? My second thought was: Where the heck is he going to touch down? The answer to the first question was: Yes. The answer to the second question was: In the back yard of the only house in view.
Carlton gently and expertly landed the balloon on the edge of the yard. As we got out, he shook my hand and said, "Congratulations! You just set the all-time record for the shortest balloon ride I’ve ever given." It lasted all of five minutes.
Socko and Selimaj had paid $175 each for an hour-long trip. Mine, at least, was free. But Carlton, 55, a terrific guy who has been flying professionally for three decades, had a small surprise in store.
He walked to the farmhouse, which was built in 1758, and returned with the owners, Tony and Diane Caliguiri, who were extremely hospitable even though the sign on their fence reads: "No trespassing. Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again."
The Caliguiris’ 10-year-old daughter, Amanda, spotted the balloon as it landed. "Actually," Amanda said, "Bill spotted it first."
"Who’s Bill?" I asked.
"My groundhog," Amanda replied.
The little critter apparently sounded the alarm that woke up the family. "Don’t worry," Tony Caliguiri assured me, referring to the sign on the fence, "I’m not going to shoot you."
But we did, at 9 a.m., have some shots anyway. In a tradition that began in France in the 1700s, when balloonists would bring gifts to the homeowners on whose property they often landed, Carlton opened a bottle of champagne and poured some bubbly for everyone (except Amanda, of course). He raised his plastic cup and proposed a toast: "Propane and champagne, the balloonist’s breakfast."
Jules Verne couldn’t have said it better.
Copyright 2007 by Jerry Zezima