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'FREEDOM' FLOATS AND FASCINATES

A couple's hot-air balloon in patriotic hues is aptly named and lifts the willing to new vistas.

Jessica and Tom Warren live in a subdivision off Collier Parkway with two children, a big yard and a balloon.

Not the metallic helium variety sold in the supermarket floral department, but a real, mammoth hot-air balloon: red, white and blue with a wicker basket and plenty of room for passengers.

They take passengers up all the time, not from their yard, although they could in a pinch, but from locations around Pasco County, depending on which way the wind is blowing.

The balloon, named Freedom, which fits neatly into the back of their van, can be seen early mornings floating over the unique patchwork sprawl that gives Pasco its character: lakes, pasture, swimming pools, horses; a sea of trees and suburbs and well fields.

"There's so much building in Pasco, yet so much wildlife left," says Jessica Warren, 29, a stay-at-home mom and licensed balloon pilot who helps run the business - American Balloons - from their home office in Land O'Lakes.

Over the years, they've ferried a lot of paying passengers in their balloons - they're on their third - including snowbirds, college kids, international visitors, tourists "who are sick of the Disney thing," veterans, a young Amish couple and a man celebrating his 97th birthday.

They meet the Warrens at a designated location - anywhere from Wesley Chapel to Tampa Palms to Land O'Lakes - at the crack of dawn and head off for an hourlong flight that ends with a champagne breakfast at J. Christopher's on North Dale Mabry.

Fear among first-timers is the norm.

"It's usually guys, I don't know why - one guy was shaking so hard he shook the whole basket," she recalls. "They say: 'You'll never get me up in that thing.' I think they're mostly afraid of heights, but with ballooning you definitely don't feel the height. By the end of the flight people are always laughing and having a good time."

After a few minutes spent drifting over eastern Pasco, where Jessica Warren says it's not uncommon to spot alligators, wild boars, deer, otters and other wildlife, even the most white-knuckled are soothed into serenity. A typical cruising altitude is 800 to 1,200 feet.

"I've never had anybody not happy," she says. "We guarantee 100 percent satisfaction; in fact, you don't pay for your flight until after you take it."

At $175 per person, that's important. Business is good, Warren says, but not booming, thanks to what she calls "a really, really slow economy when people don't have the money for extras."

The couple moved to Pasco three years ago from Town 'N Country, where they lived in a neighborhood with three other balloon pilots.

"We were used to flying over Pasco - balloonists have flown over this area for years," Warren says.

With a garage that's nearly 21/2bays, they're able to fit vehicles, balloons and equipment in without much problem.

The only clue that a couple of serious balloonists live here is at Christmas, when they deck out the front lawn with an inflatable balloon ferrying Santa.

That's mostly for their kids, Zachary, 3, and Katlyn, 9.

Jessica Warren's mother-in-law, who lives next door, collects much more ballooning bric-a-brac, including a wall full of completed hot-air balloon jigsaw puzzles.

"We are considering painting a hot-air balloon mural in our kid's playroom," Jessica Warren says.

Tom Warren, 32, a diesel mechanic who owns T & A Truck Specialists of Tampa, first got interested a decade ago while repairing the engine on a motor home for a balloonist who lived across the street.

Within a year he had his pilot's license, Jessica Warren says.

In the early days, before he was licensed to take up passengers commercially, their extended family served as crew.

They still do.

"My mother-in-law still comes out and drives with us," Jessica Warren says. "And my brother and his friends are still our crew. Our kids help, too. It's still exciting."

Flights are always in the early mornings, she says, because the winds are usually low and the temperature ideal because the sun hasn't had a chance to heat up the roads.

Jessica typically "chases" the balloon when it lands and picks up Tom and passengers.

She jokes that she and Tom call it the perfect marriage counseling, because "if he makes me mad, I won't chase the balloon, and if I make him mad he won't tell me where he's coming down."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com.

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