WITH A FINAL blast of flame from the burner overhead, the wicker basket teetered, crackled and suddenly took off, soaring up and away from the field, over the tops of the trees and into the path of the wind.
Another burst of heat lifted the balloon higher and tugged us toward Little Seneca Lake near Boyds, Md., where two other hot air balloons hovered.
"Fancy Colours II to chase," our pilot, Randy Danneman of Fantasy Flights, snapped into his two-way radio. He had spotted his ground crew in the blue chase van, watching for us from the side of the road far below.
The crew was following closely, rambling along the winding roads, ready to help stake out a landing spot and assist with the balloon's descent.
"We're stopping for a splash and dash," Danneman told them. The balloon's reflection wavered into view as he began lowering the balloon toward the lake.
By now, his routine is easy. For the last 10 years, Danneman has made weekly balloon rides both a hobby and business that attracts mostly first-time balloon adventurers. In the area, there are about a dozen other companies who fly varying flights across farmland, lakes, forests and over Maryland's Sugarloaf Mountain.
Riding in a balloon is like being stopped at the top of a Ferris wheel. The basket rocks gently, you grab onto the railing, crane your neck and peer off the sides, savoring every detail until you come down.
At 300 feet above the trees, the lush countryside of Maryland unfolded into a colorful tapestry of farm houses, barns and scattered rows of corn. A dog barked, a deer bolted out from the thicket, a flock of Canada geese flew by.
"This is my favorite height for flying," says Danneman. For an hour, we floated with the other balloons, listening to the whoosh of their burners.
Danneman explained that a balloon drifts at the same speed and in the same direction as the wind, but by controlling the amount of hot air inside the balloon, the pilot can adjust his altitude within inches. He likes to test his steering ability by performing such excercises as the "touch and go" and "splash and dash." The object is to lower the balloon as close as possible to land or water without touching. If during a splash and dash the temperature inside the balloon isn't perfect, a few inches of water might seep through the sides of the basket, as it did in our attempt.
The best times to go ballooning are two to three hours after sunrise or before sunset, when the winds are light. Most full-time pilots fly year-round, weather permitting, though, says Danneman, "it's pretty uncomfortable flying when it's above 90 or below 10 degrees."
When it's time to come down again, the pilot has to keep three important things in mind when picking a safe landing site: It must be dry, to avoid mildew after the balloon is deflated and rolled into its bag; away from power lines, trees and livestock; and accessible to the chase vehicle.
"Get ready to catch the line," Danneman shouted to the ground crew as we glided down to a grassy hill. They yanked on the ropes and after three quick bounces the balloon was steadied and guided onto a dry gravel path. A few cars had honked and pulled off I-270 to watch the blue, red and yellow stripes sink and flatten to the ground.
It's tradition to break out bottles of champagne after ballooning. Some say it's because the first hot air balloon was attacked by farmers with pitchforks when it landed, others say it's brought to bribe the crew who work in exchange for an occasional free ride, a small fee or simply for the excitement.
Along with champagne, your crew may have an induction ceremony for first-time balloon fliers. You may learn the history of hot air balloons, told a special ballooner's chant or awarded a certificate. Beware of who's tilting the champagne bottle close by, but also remember that as in a splash and dash, getting a little wet is all part of the fun.
MORE THAN HOT AIR
Most balloons can accommodate up to four passengers, not counting the pilot. Flights last approximately one hour and range in price from $125 to $250 per person. When flying during the colder months, it's a good idea to layer your thick clothing so that you can remove some as you warm up under the burners. Because ballooning depends on good weather conditions, pilots will contact their passengers a few days before the flight and give them an updated forecast the night before.
The following is a list of some of the commercial balloon companies in the area. Unless indicated, flights are scheduled throughout the year. For more information on ballooning, call Dan Kirk, president of the Chesapeake Balloon Association, at 301/750-7998.
ADVENTURES ALOFT -- 301/881-6262. $150 per person, per flight. Western Maryland (Sugarloaf Mountain).
AERONAUT MASTERS -- 301/869-2FLY. $125. Montgomery and Frederick counties.
CHESAPEAKE BALLOON SERVICE -- 301/667-6789. $150. Northern end of Baltimore County.
HOT B-AIR BALLOON COMPANY -- 301/972-7004. $250. Upper Montgomery County.
FANTASY FLIGHTS -- 301/972-2839 $175. Boyds and Urbana.
LIGHT FLIGHT HOT AIR BALLOONS -- 301/836-7758. $150. Bel Air.
RAINBOW BALLOON ADVENTURES -- 301/494-1510. $200. Carroll County.
UNDER THE SUN ADVENTURES -- 301/299-9520. $140. Montgomery and Frederick counties.
WINDSHADOW BALLOONS -- 301/762-4350. $150. Montgomery and Frederick counties.
BALLOONS UNLIMITED -- 703/281-2300. $150. Middleburg. End of March to Mid-November
BARNSTORMERS AIRSHOWS -- 804/798-8830. $125. Richmond.
BON-AIR BALLOON CHARTERS -- 804/293-3561. $125. Charlottesville.
CLEAR SKY ADVENTURES -- 703/369-5685. $125. Prince William and Loudoun counties. April to June and September to December.