As the sun rose around 7 a.m. Friday in Bloomington, students were probably groggily and begrudgingly waking up for their 8 a.m. classes. At the Monroe County Fairgrounds, hot air balloon pilots were awake and preparing their balloons to launch into the blue and pink pastel sky.
The pilots were in town for the fifth annual Kiwanis Club of South Central Indiana Balloon Fest. Later that night and through until Sunday evening, the fairground fields would be filled with more balloons, inflatables, games and fair food, but this morning was quiet.
Five balloons and their pilots and passengers were going to fly over Bloomington, starting from the fairgrounds and floating northeast into downtown and campus, with plans to land at Memorial Stadium.
“This is the closest you can get to floating on a cloud,” pilot and festival co-founder Andy Richardson said.
Richardson is offering this experience to the community by piloting morning rides Saturday and Sunday at the festival. The ride with his Albuquerque, New Mexico-based balloon company, Adams Balloons, costs $250 per person this weekend.
The festival also offers tethered balloon rides in the evenings for $10 per person, according to its website.
But before a balloon can ever fly, it takes about an hour of work and a team of people to prepare.
Richardson and the other pilots, one of whom is Bloomington Police Department Chief Michael Diekhoff, each had to unpack their balloons and spread the massive folds of fabric across the dewy grass.
Once the balloons were laid out, a large floor fan blew air in the balloon’s bottom opening to begin inflation. As the balloon reached three to four stories high, Richardson climbed inside the golden bubble, reminiscent of parachute games in elementary school, and continued to move around the massive folds of fabric.
After the inside was prepared, Richardson climbed out and positioned himself behind the burners, then shot massive bursts of flame into the beached balloon.
By this time, the quietness of the morning was now replaced with the quintessential sound of the gas being released with a whoosh into the balloons.
At full inflation, the balloon could fit 250,000 basketballs inside, Richardson said.
Richardson told his passengers to keep an eye on the balloon because as soon as it reached full inflation, they needed to get in the basket to keep it on the ground.
“Can you Google how to fly a balloon for me?” he said after the passengers climbed into the basket. “It’s a joke,” he said, throwing his hands up in innocence. Richardson had been flying balloons since high school and now flies three to four times a week with 10 or more passengers, he said.
He radioed to the control tower at the Monroe County Airport to inform them of today’s flight plans. He was taking the balloon northeast, anywhere from treetop height to 3,000 feet in the air.
It was a gentle liftoff the ground, then a casual float into higher altitudes. At 500 feet above the fairgrounds, the balloon traveled around 12 mph, Richardson said.
An hour after the sunrise and the beginning preparation of the balloons, the sun was bright in the sky and had created a haze over the treetops that umbrella Bloomington.
Richardson said it was the best weather the festival had seen in its five years and it was expected to last through the weekend. Bloomington typically only has a couple months of balloon-flying weather, Richardson said, which is why he moved to Albuquerque where balloons fly year-round. He said the weather there was like this 50-degree Bloomington morning every day, all day.
It was cold morning air, but the heat from the gaseous burners radiated through the passengers as the balloon flew along.
Soon, familiar landmarks could be spotted from the balloon. The Whitehall Plaza stores on West Third Street, Rosehill Cemetery on West Kirkwood Avenue and glimpses of the Monroe County Courthouse dome.
Bloomington residents stood in pajamas on their driveways, taking pictures and waving. One man was drinking coffee in his yard and gazed up, waving slowly. Richardson yelled down to a woman, asking her what was on her breakfast menu.
The balloon soared over the hidden courtyards and pools of downtown apartment buildings, then crossed into campus. Tall buildings like the Poplars building on East Seventh Street and Eigenmann Hall were easiest to pick out.
The balloon’s flight skirted around the northwest edge of campus and towards Memorial Stadium, where the balloon flew end zone to end zone. Construction workers paused and waved as the balloon passed over.
Richardson had planned to land in the grass behind the stadium but decided the bushes would make it hard to land. He added more hot air to the balloon and climbed higher again, over the Indiana 46 Bypass and into the dense woods around Griffy Lake.
From the ground, it’s not obvious how vast and dense the forest stretches beyond campus. The sight below looked like a velvety green carpet. Griffy Lake provided a small opening in the canopy, and in the south, Lake Monroe shimmered in small pockets.
The basket grazed the tops of the trees as Richardson descended the balloon into a small, private field. An hour after taking off from the cold, wet grass at the fairgrounds, the balloon was back on the ground in another grassy field.
Richardson’s balloon ride had provided views of Bloomington only the birds and a few lucky pilots get to see.
But one of the goals of the balloon festival is to provide what the community doesn’t usually see, said Vanessa McClary, co-founder of the festival and founder of the South Central Indiana Kiwanis chapter.
And in a hot air balloon, you will certainly experience the parts of Monroe County you don’t usually see, in a way you’ve never seen them.
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