Up, Up in the Air
Ballooning is the ultimate window seat
Everything Paul Sena does is weather-related. “Last year, I booked 110 flights and was only able to do 40,” he says.
Photos by Frania Caulfield
“You know, the whole Santa story would be a lot more believable if we just said he came in on a balloon,” says Paul Sena, as he releases more hell-fire into the 75-foot-tall balloon that is carrying us across Richmond Valley. “I mean, think about it. That makes so much more sense. Santa floats in, drops the toys, the parents help out by picking them up at the drop point and putting them in the house.”
It’s definitely a believable story, despite that on this particular night the air has just missed the 90-degree mark (with the same level of humidity), and the winds are eerily still. Everyone in the 600-pound—actually 400 if you don’t count the 200 pounds of fuel—basket is sweating. But the view is so miraculous and the vessel so wholly silent, not a complaint is uttered. It is a perfect night and apparently a rare one, according to Sena, who is the owner-operator of Worthington Ballooning, which was established in 1991.
“Last year, I booked 110 flights and was only able to do 40,” he says. “Everything I do, every decision I make is weather-related, and that leaves a lot to circumstance. Last October, during peak foliage season—our busiest time—we had a lot of pop-up thunderstorms, so we had to cancel a lot.”
But even when flying in safe conditions, for whomever is in the basket, floating 2,000 feet above the earth at five to ten miles per hour, safety is a relative term.
“A thunderstorm can suck you in like a vacuum. You’re at the mercy of the winds and whatever else nature throws at you,” says Tim Taylor, owner/operator of Berkshire Balloon Excursions. “If you don’t care where you’re going and how long it takes to get there, then the balloon is the perfect mode of transportation.”
Taylor is also a “chaser” for Sena. For this hot, summer flight, he and Sena’s wife, Judy, follow the balloon on the back roads of West Stockbridge and Richmond, in constant radio contact with Sena, taking driving instructions from him. At one point, the balloon hovers just 300 feet above a confused huddle of black cows. “I’m not gonna land here,” Sena directs his chase team. “Keep going to the next field over. South.”
It is a tight and patient community, these cloud riders. Their ranks spread across the globe and spiral inward. Regional numbers are high enough to encourage several balloon festivals throughout the year.
“Everybody gets together and trades stories, and somebody has found a better way to do something,” says Taylor. “Like the old car clubs, except with balloons.”
Sena’s 26-year “hobby” has brought him to Ireland several times, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Colorado, New Jersey—sometimes flying with 100 fellow balloonists at a time. Or flying solo and being forced to conduct a random yet successful landing that found him suddenly amidst a wedding, a large birthday party, and even a music festival, where he hopped out of the basket and played onstage for a bit. Of course, there are the planned atmospheric adventures for a special occasion—a proposal, a 50th-wedding anniversary, spreading the ashes of a loved one.
“Most of my flights are unbelievable, and a lot of that has to do with the people,” Sena says. “They want the thrill of the experience. Very few of my clients fly more than once. I’ve had passengers anywhere from eight to 101 years old. To me, it’s a performing art; it’s very expressionistic, like flying a big sculpture.”
From the ground, hot-air balloons maintain a fragile elegance that hasn’t changed much since their days as an aristocratic hobby, according to Taylor. They float gently from gust to gust, disappearing in and out of the landscape to the relative joy of onlookers. And what happens in the basket above hasn’t changed much either. The crew (in Sena’s case, himself) has to continually account for the amount of fuel in the gas tanks—releasing the flame every few seconds or minutes depending on the air temperature—while adjusting some ropes as the wind direction changes, anticipating mountains and ridgelines, determining location, and, of course, finding a safe place to land.
“Physically, it’s very easy to fly,” Sena says, scoping out the landscape for a good spot. “Mentally, it’s very, very challenging.”
As the balloon slowly descends toward a white house surrounded by neatly mowed hayfields, the house’s inhabitants emerge, waving and smiling. One has a camera and is already taking pictures. One is using a cane to slowly make her way off the porch. Neighbors from across the street begin to cross the road. Taylor radios to the captain.
“They said you could land here,” he says.
“Great,” says Sena. “We’ll give them a bottle of champagne when we get on the ground.”
He glances down at everyone and everything, which still look small and faraway. “Just a bunch of bottom-dwellers floating in a sea of air,” he says, laughing.