You saw Phileas Fogg and Passepartout travel Around the World in 80 Days in a balloon and wished you could step through the screen, through time, through space, to join them.
Or you were disappointed when Toto's mischief made Dorothy miss her ride home to Kansas from Oz in the Wizard's big, beautiful balloon.
You're not alone: The dream and freedom of hot-air balloon flight still charm the adventurous, the imaginative, the poetic and the just plain curious. It's rare, after all, to go gracefully out of this world, even for a little while.
Some are drawn to ballooning by nostalgia: The oldest form of aviation, the elegant sport began in 18th-century France. Others seek the special place it offers humans, riding the winds between heaven and earth.
Balloonists -- or aeronauts, as they prefer, more poetically, to be called -- seem to be filled with a most delightful kind of hot air. Ask about their sport and they light up like the propane burners they use to fill their seven-story-high contraptions. The only thing they seem to like anywhere near as much as ballooning is talking about ballooning, but don't expect specifics: "truly fantastic . . . an amazing sensation . . . nothing quite like it"; "so beautiful, so exhilarating, it seems like you're just floating," and even "gorgeous -- like falling in love." Well, you'll want to try it yourself.
As it should be, ballooning's like nothing on earth. Even getting ready is dramatic. The huge, colorful envelope lies flat on the ground while a blower driven by a gasoline engine pushes in 50,000 cubic feet or more of heated air. Yards and yards of tough synthetic fabric, 65 feet across, "billow like a giant, colored cloud," in the words of one awed spectator, changing as you watch from a tremendous, formless bag into a graceful, symmetrical vehicle of the air. Its size -- as high as a city building -- never fails to amaze.
Once it's inflated, the pilot calls passengers aboard and makes final safety checks while heating the air until it's "light." The sturdy, waist-high wicker basket, or gondola, is built not only for cozinbess and charm, but also for comfort and durability. Its design has hardly changed since the 18th century except for the addition of aircraft radio, flight instrument panel and propane-fuel tanks.
When the tether is loosed, first-time passengers are always surprised at the gentleness of the ascent, even as the ground drops away so quickly and dramatically. Soon you're at treetop level; and, if you like, it doesn't take long to get to cruising altitude -- somewhere between 1,500 and 6,000 feet.
Aloft, there are still more pleasant surprises: The tranquility and bird's-eye view of the world are nearly magical -- as close as one can come to walking among the clouds.
Because a balloon travels with the winds, not against them, there is absolute quiet, broken only by the gentle creaking of the basket and the occasional flare of the burner, safely overhead, raising or holding the air temperature inside the envelope.
The serene silence makes it easy and fun to call to friendly (but very surprised) people and curious animals below, and just as easy to hear their reactions.
One of the most pleasant sensations is feeling, literally, above any traffic jams you see as you cruise over the natural patchwork of woods, fields and roads.
Most balloon flights last an hour or two, though aeronauts often wish they could last forever, and can cover as much as thirty miles. The landing site is unknown until you reach it, depending on the wind's strength and direction and the pilot's feel for the balloon.
When the time comes, the balloon drops smoothly to the ground, touches briefly, skims the earth for a short distance, rises momentarily, and then finally comes back to earth with a gentle bump. Then ballooning's 200-year-old French traditions ease the pain of being (temporarily) earthbound again: A bottle of champagne is brought out to continue the mood of the flight and, as one experienced astronaut puts it, "to help the landowners welcome the balloonists." FLIGHTS OF FANCY If you want ballooning to be your own flight of fancy, you don't have to wait for the Wizard of Oz to swing by and scoop you up into the air. Hot-air ballooning's prime season lasts roughly from May through October, so now is the perfect time for your maiden flight. Launch conditions are best in early morning or late afternoon, when winds are lighter and more predictable, and the splendid view of the rising or setting sun adds even more to the beauty of the flight.