P eople will stop and stare.
They'll gawk, point up at the sky and cock their heads to the side. Someone might even take a picture.
A hot-air balloon passes by, friendly waves are exchanged. Such is the life of hot-air balloonists.
"My first flight was free, but my next one cost me a balloon," said David Justice, owner and operator of Celebration Aviation, who has been flying them for more than 31 years. "Passengers are anything from tourists to mostly locals just looking to go for a ride. It's about half and half that you'll see people just doing it for fun and others, it's their business. For us, it's a full-time job."
There are balloon enthusiasts out there who fly on their own, but it doesn't come cheap. According to most companies in the area, everyone knows everyone in the balloon clique and many are business owners, whether it's a side business or main source of income.
"I think there's more commercial pilots than recreational pilots," said Dave Garner, owner and operator of the Big Red Balloon Sightseeing Adventures. "They're out there, but the private guys tend to stay in their corner and do their own thing. It's expensive enough that you have to fly passengers to support your habit."
Going hot-air ballooning starts early, before the sun is up. They meet in a parking lot to test the wind by sending up a small white balloon and watch where the wind takes it. They depart to a field and set up shop.
Once there, balloonists unroll their balloons, stretching them out the 70 feet they will be in height. Then they take large fans and blow air in there until the crew sets up the basket with the hot-air blower and propane tank. They quickly inflate the balloon to stand it upright.
And take off as the sun comes up.
"It's no different than taking your boat, finding a spot for a boat ramp and going out in the hot sun and baking all day and fishing," said Ron Davis, owner and operator of Crystal Magic Balloon Co. "Except we're done quicker and it's done in a better and earlier part of the day. It's very much like sailing. We're just sailors of the sky."
Justice and Garner agree with Garner that ballooning can be compared to boating. However, ballooning seems to be a bit more difficult, and expensive, than boating. First off, because a balloon is a registered aircraft, fliers must have a pilot's license. Secondly, filling the propane tank can be more expensive than filling the boat's gas tank.
"The training is much more difficult than learning to just do a boat — it's just much more regulated," Garner said. "I think there are the same level of risks involved, though, but the work to hot-air balloon is similar to taking your boat out on a hot day, especially out on the Gulf."
Davis says that "ballooning can be a very small community" and "you get to know people everywhere." But despite ballooning for business, they still enjoy the flights.
"Most everyone who does hot-air ballooning does so because of a passion for flying," Garner added. "Everyone shares the same passion to do it, because there is nothing else like it."
All three owners say that many who come to them want a balloon flight for a special occasion — the anniversary, birthday, or even the check mark on the bucket list.
No matter what the reason, there's always a line of people to go up.
"A lot of people want to go as a once-in-a-lifetime thing, or go because they've never had the chance, and just a certain number of them enjoy it so much they want to get involved," Justice said. "So they keep coming out and learn and fly more and more. Eventually they'll find a way to buy a balloon."
Community Sports Editor Mike Camunas can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 544-1771.