Riding in a hot-air balloon is the consummation of fantasy: To float gently through the sky, kissing the tops of trees, oblivious to gravity.

The balloon drifts on, a slow-moving chariot at the mercy of wind and the gods.

Riding in the contraption is like being a celebrity on parade. Kids and their parents come running out of their houses, waving frantically. Farmers, golfers and fishermen are more blase, simply waving and chatting, as the balloonist can do with the land-bound spectator.

Nearly everyone wants a ride.

It's hard to miss a balloon going by. Even if you don't happen to see it - it's about nine stories high - you will probably hear the intermittent blasts as the propane heaters keep the hot air hot, a sound strangely reminiscent of the furnace-like fury Dorothy heard when she first met the Wizard of Oz.

Dogs go berserk; horses gallop in circles; cows moo and run for cover. If you're lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of deer, rabbits and hawks before the roar of the heaters scares them into hiding.

But for the pilot it's not quite so ethereal.

"Once you actually control a flight, your fantasies give way to adventure and technological precision," balloonist Pat Michaels said on a post-dawn flight the other weekend. "You have to maintain a constant surveillance of winds and power lines.

Charming as it is, aloft in a wicker and leather gondola, propelled by a balmy breeze, there are dangers. Balloons have been sliced to pieces and the passengers electrocuted by power lines. Undetected leaks in the propane tanks on board can leave you fuel-less in midflight, or even blow up your chariot.

A sudden squall can make things unpleasant, as five-year veteran Mike Kohler discovered. He is recuperating from the foot he broke on a hard landing in a thunderstorm.

Even in a light wind, landing can be tricky. Air Force fighter pilot Bill Gabel, a bit rusty after six months away from balloon lessons, gave us a rough "touch and go" the first time down - landing speed of 200 feet per minute. A smooth one, says Michael, is five or ten feet per minute. I didn't properly brace myself and got nasty bruises on my knees and rump. (The rest of the landings were smooth and I held on better.)

Balloonists tend to be professionals, says Kohler. Lawyers, congressmen and even Gloria Steinem have gone up with him. For many it becomes an addiction. When Michaels got turned on to the sport three years ago, he quickly earned his pilot's license and now teaches. When not aloft, he supports his costly habit as a public relations and marketing specialist for the Bahamaian government.

In spite of being one of the most expensive sports, ballooning is growing more popular all the time. There are four major manufacturing companies, says Michaels, and they can't keep up with the demand. A new balloon starts at $6,000. If you want modifications - like a special rip-stop nylon balloon with an ultra-violet inhibitor (screens out the harmful sun rays and increases the balloon's flying time from 300 to 500 hours) - the price can rise as high as the balloon. A CB radio comes in handy for the chase crew to monitor the balloon's movements. Other incidentals include crash helmets, and propane tanks.

Michaels got a local sponsor to subsidize him. "A common practice among balloonists in Europe," he says.

Even an excursion is not cheap. A two-hour ride can cost up to $175 and lessons are about the same. A reasonable alternative is to put in time with the ground crew - helping to ready the balloon for flight or packing it up - and then earn a free ride or lesson.

The sport has gotten more sophisticated since the Montgolfer brothers, Jacques Etienne and Joseph Michel, first sent up a manned balloon in 1783. They used a large smoke-filled cloth bag, 35 feet in diameter, lined with paper and heated by burning charcoal placed on a pan underneath.

J.A.C. Charles launched the first hydrogen balloon (unmanned) earlier that year. Upon landing outside of Paris it was immediately torn to pieces by peasants who thought the moon was unhinged and on the verge of demolishing the earth. Consequently Louis XVI issued a decree to his less worldly subjects, explaining the nature of balloons and ordering his people not to fear or damage them.

Our own landing was not well received. Due to shifting winds and ever present power lines we landed three fields over from our intended destination, a farm outside of Laytonsville, Md. The owner was not pleased to see us.

"I didn't ask anyone to land in my field and scare my cattle," she complained as we came up to introduce ourselves. Even the offer of a free balloon ride from her neighbor, Laytonsville mayor Stan Mills, whose field we had aimed for, met with an adamant refusal.

"I'm safe right here on the ground."

A balloon ride traditionally ends with a bottle of fine French champagne. The custom dates back to the early years when ballooning became more popular in France. Voyagers took to carrying a bottle or two of the bubbly to appease any pitchfork-wielding provincials.