|Gentle breezes and soft landings|
|Written by Deborah Stone|
Tom Hamilton spends a good deal of his time above land. The veteran pilot finds life much more interesting up in the air than down on the ground.
Though years ago he flew helicopters in the military, today you’ll find Hamilton at the helm of a hot air balloon, working for Airial Balloon Company in Snohomish.
“Hot air balloons have been around for a long time,” says the local man. “The first documented flight was made in 1783 by Joseph and Etienne Montgolifier, two brothers from France who were in the paper manufacturing business.”
Hamilton goes on to explain that the men developed a new paper which was a combination of paper and silk. When they watched it burn, they observed that little pieces of unburned paper and ashes would rise into the air.
This phenomenon fascinated them and they decided to explore the possibility of capturing this air and using it as a means for man to fly.
The brothers’ first flight lasted 25 minutes. Their balloon rose to 1,500 feet and traveled a total distance of five miles.
“Ballooning eventually became the rage in Europe,” comments Hamilton. “The symbol of the balloon was used everywhere. And then later after World War II, a man named Ed Yost came along and developed a balloon made of nylon and heated it with propane. That marked the development of the modern balloon.” He adds, “Today, hot air balloons are very prolific and popular everywhere.”
Airial Balloon Company has been in existence since 1981. It runs flights year-round, seven days a week, weather permitting.
The conditions have to be just right and obviously, windy, rainy days are not favorable. On a recent beautiful Sunday morning, six of us assembled at Airial Balloon’s offices for a flight.
Lee and Lucy came from Issaquah to celebrate Lucy’s birthday, while Todd, Kathleen and 11-year-old Nicholas drove from Capitol Hill to mark Todd’s 50th.
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” says Todd. “Every year, I see the balloons in the valley and they look so beautiful and I’ve always imagined how it would be to go up in one. Turning 50 seemed like a good time to do it.”
The group gathered in the parking lot to watch as our pilot, Hamilton, sent several small, helium-filled balloons up in the air in order to get speed and directional data.
Then we loaded up in a van and headed to a nearby field where we participated in the process of helping to bring the balloon to life.
At nine stories high and decked out in the colors of the rainbow, it was a thing of wondrous beauty to behold.
Once in the basket, we quickly ascended and left terra firma behind.
From our bird’s eye perch, we were able to see the picturesque Puget Sound region in all its glory, from the snow-capped mountains of the Cascades and the Olympics to majestic Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker. Lakes, rivers and the sound were all in view, as were the various islands that dot this spectacular landscape.
Seattle’s skyline appeared, along with the Space Needle, and below us, the pastoral Snohomish Valley looked like a geometric grid with toy sized farms.
What surprises most first- time passengers is the aura of serenity that surrounds a hot air balloon flight.
“It’s so peaceful up here,” comments Kathleen. “And, other than the noise of the burner every so often, it’s really quiet. I just never expected it to be this way.”
Her husband Todd adds, “It’s so gentle, too. You really do float. There’s no rocking or swinging wildly. It’s very smooth and calm.” As he piloted the balloon, Hamilton pointed out landmarks and sights and answered questions about the mechanics of hot air ballooning.
He explained that the direction of the flight depends on the wind and that the altitude of the craft is controlled by changing the temperature of the air inside the envelope.
“It’s the challenge of navigating from point A to point B that’s fun,” he says. “And no two flights are the same, so it’s a unique experience each time I go up.”
After over an hour in the air, we began to descend, coming right over Highway 9 and landing in another spacious field.
Back at the company’s offices, in a gazebo in the garden, we celebrated our adventure with a champagne toast to “gentle breezes and soft landings,” followed by a tasty breakfast of warm apple coffeecake and fresh fruit.
We had flown five miles at a max height of 2,300 feet and gained an entirely different perspective on our own backyard.
For more information about hot air balloon flights, contact Airial Balloon Company at (360) 568-3025 or visit www.airialballoon.com.