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Hot air balloonists provide tranquil rides in Pasco's skies

LAND O'LAKES — Many mornings, Jessica Warren stands beside the basket beneath a hot air balloon that will rise with the sun.

From inside the basket, "the sunrise is spectacular," Warren said.

The first time she saw one from a balloon is why she and her husband turned what started as a hobby into a business: American Balloons.

After their wedding in 1996, Warren, 37, and husband Tom, 39, moved to a house in Town 'N Country, where the woman across the street was a hot air balloonist.

She owned 11 balloons, and had planned one morning in 1998 to provide a ride in one of them for patrons at a festival. But the balloon's chase crew — a team that sets up, chases and takes down hot air balloons from the ground — had car trouble.

So she called her neighbors, the Warrens.

"She begged us to help," said Jessica Warren. "We said, 'Sure. We'll make it a date.' "

They returned to the festival the following morning to help their neighbor again. But the patrons who booked that flight didn't show.

"So she told us to take a ride," said Warren.

They did.

And "after that," Warren said, "we were kind of addicted."

Tom Warren studied for his pilot's license, which a hot air balloonist must have. First, he flew with an instructor. Then he flew solo.

After that, "he took his written test (and) his flying test. He passed with flying colors," said Jessica Warren, who now has a pilot's license, too.

Hot air ballooning isn't cheap, she said.

"We started the business so we could support the hobby," she said.

It began with one balloon and boomed until the Warrens owned nine of them. Jessica Warren quit her job as a surgical counselor and assistant to run the business full time.

They since have downsized to four balloons — fewer balloons allow for better customer service, she said.

Tom Warren, who also owns a vehicle maintenance business, is the primary pilot for American Balloons. Whether he flies on a given morning depends on the weather.

Before the crack of dawn, the Warrens check three weather websites. They call flight services, like airplane pilots do, to check the weather again and to express intent to fly. Then they release a helium balloon designed to identify the wind's direction and speed.

"So we know where we're going and how fast we're going to get there," Jessica Warren explained.

Patrons show up early in the morning, and the balloon takes off in time for riders to see the sun rise above the horizon. When the sun is fully up, she said, there's a lot more to see.

"Once you get above rooftop level, you won't believe how many trees are left (despite development)," she said — and riders get a good glimpse of the wildlife above and below them.

"We've flown over a bald eagle's nest," she said. "We see deer, alligators, otters."

Patrons also can see downtown Tampa and the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

"You get the same view you do when you jump out of an airplane," Tom Warren said, but it isn't as scary and it lasts an hour. "A tranquil hour to watch the earth turn."

Some patrons do it because it's on their bucket list. Others book flights for special occasions: birthdays, weddings and, often, engagements — some awesome and others a bit awkward.

But the ride is always worth it, Jessica Warren said.

"People have cried, in awe," she said. "Letting go of control and allowing it to be taken over by the wind is an amazing experience."

While American Balloons is based in Land O'Lakes, flights take off from Wesley Chapel. The cost is $189 per person, or $525 for a couple's "sweetheart" private ride. For information, call (813) 243-9507 or visit americanballoonrides.com.

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