AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - 71

D
Driving anywhere at 4:30 a.m. is a surreal
experience. It's still dark; the roads are
quiet; and everything seems deserted. You
get the sense that all you survey is temporarily yours, until sunlight floods the scene
and regular folks venture out.
Perhaps it is this sense of temporary
autonomy that draws hot air balloon pilots
out of bed before dawn to launch at a time
of day when winds are at their lightest.
Perhaps it's just another strain of aviation
obsession.
Patrick Smith of Frederick, Maryland,
surveys the sky that is steadily lightening on this summer morning. Skeins of
mist cling to the wet grass at Frederick
Municipal Airport, though there will not
be enough ground fog to interfere with
the launch of his six-passenger balloon,
N918LJ. It is dead calm at the surface,
but Smith knows that microcurrents of
air starting at around 200 to 300 feet agl
will affect the direction of his flight. He'll
confirm this by releasing a helium-filled
child's balloon attached to an LED light,
and watching the path of the balloon as
it floats upward. Sure enough, it tracks

slightly north, then south, as it climbs.
He now knows what to expect. A balloon
pilot may enjoy the unstructured nature of
lighter-than-air (LTA) flight, but he can't
take chances, particularly with paying
customers on board.
Smith has been a commercial balloon
operator since 2010. It's a seasonal gig, as
the East Coast's fussy climate can't sustain
a full-time business. Smith had initially
focused his aviation path on the airlines.
His timing was bad; the regionals hired
him and assigned him to three different
new-hire classes that subsequently evaporated when airline hiring took a nosedive
in 2008. He was a flight instructor in airplanes, but by the time he and his wife,
Meagan, started a family, the airlines no
longer held their appeal. He's now an
insurance agent at Aviation Insurance
Resources in Frederick, and the couple's
fourth child is expected in June.

CREW MANAGEMENT

Smith's crew has arrived to help with the
launch, piling out of a van that will later
be used to pick up the occupants of today's

flight and transport them back to the starting point. Ballooning, like gliding, is a
community effort. Today's crew includes
Smith's dad, Kevin Smith; Meagan; Don
Demember; and Keith Kern. " I love it
because I never know where we're going
to end up, " Meagan says.
Smith readies the basket-gondola in
balloon parlance-explaining each step
as he goes. His genial patter puts customers at ease about the safety features of an
aircraft that is basically an envelope of
heated air, a tank of propane, a burner, and
a flexible wicker basket. Hot air balloons
have thrilled nonfliers since at least 1783,
but even the most enthusiastic passenger
can be trepidatious about climbing inside
one. Smith attaches struts called uprights
to the top of the basket; the flexible rods
support the 67-pound burner and prevent it from compressing onto passengers'
heads when the gondola touches down.
Meanwhile, the crew is spreading out
the envelope-all 315 pounds of it-on the
wet grass. If there were any hint of air
movement, they'd be doing this downwind
of the launch site. Smith tests the propane

GROUND CREW are an integral part of balloon
flying. Above, Keith Kern (green shirt) holds
the mouth of the balloon steady while
Patrick Smith fires the burners to heat the
air. At left, the author, Meagan Smith, and
Patrick Smith await release.

aopa.org/pilot AOPA PILOT | 71


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AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021

Contents
AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - Intro
AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - Cover1
AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - Cover2
AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - Contents
AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - 2
AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - 3
AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - 4
AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - 5
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AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - 20
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AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - 26
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