Watching a hot air balloon crew prep for takeoff, it looks like a complicated task.
The pilot plots a course with compasses and maps, and monitors weather conditions unseen to the untrained eye. His crew strains against heavy ropes, giant fans and columns of fire.
But at the same time, it’s a simple sport: It all comes down to wind and heat.
An 85-degree difference between the temperature inside the balloon and outside will make it float. Winds created as the earth warms make it fly.
“You’re working a puzzle with something you can’t see,” said Frankfort hot air balloon pilot Tim McClain. “It’s a game, it’s a challenge.”
Tim, an employee of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, is one of two active balloon pilots in Franklin County. The other, Frank Stevenson, is a private balloon pilot working toward his commercial license
“I just fell in love with ballooning,” Tim says, 16 years after he got his start on a balloon crew.
“It’s a very unique sport, and you don’t meet people every day who fly hot air balloons.”
Tim caught the balloon bug in 1993, when he began working on Shelbyville pilot Mike Wade’s crew.
An unwritten rule says that if you work on a pilot’s crew a few times, you’ll earn a free ride. As Tim soared above central Kentucky, he was in awe.
The two lost contact for a few years. Then the phone rang.
“He called me and said he had a deal I couldn’t pass up,” Tim said. “His balloon was for sale.”
Tim bought the balloon - emblazoned with an ad for Kool cigarettes - and started taking lessons. New pilots buy balloons the same way new drivers buy used cars, he said.
“You will damage it, you will burn holes in it, you will have a fender bender at some point,” he said.
An average used balloon costs $4,000, while new balloons are $20,000, and corporate balloons reach beyond $100,000.
By 2001, Tim was ready to take the exam for his private pilot’s license. But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks grounded general aviation.
He waited a year and earned his license in 2002, upgrading to a commercial license last May. That allows him to charge for flights, but most of his trips are for fun - not profit.
It’s ideal to fly once a week, but Tim estimates he flies 15 to 20 times a year. His friends, family and fellow members of the Louisville-based Balloon Society of Kentucky ride along.
His wife, Melissa, goes up once in a while, but Tim says she’d rather read a good book.
“It’s just not her thing,” he said. “Been there, done that.”
He flies at the Brass Band Festival in Danville, lights up Bardstown for the city’s annual balloon glow, and races in Maysville.
But he doesn’t fly in many competitions - he says pilots can feel pressured to fly in conditions that would keep them grounded back home.
“Some people like to hunt, fish, take their boat to the lake or ride their motorcycle,” he said. “We do hot air balloons.”
One gorgeous afternoon in September, Tim and two crew members prepared for a flight through Anderson County.
They start in a church parking lot, where they check the wind’s speed and direction.
The three men release a helium-filled pilot balloon - called a pibal for short. Standing with their backs to the sun, they watch it disappear into a black speck, squinting through a compass to measure the angle at which it floats away.
They use that number to plot a course on the map, following the grid from their starting point to their destination.
But the destination isn’t up to them – it’s up to the wind. Their current spot isn’t a good option: If they start there, the wind will carry them to Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary.
They must steer clear of trees, power lines, the Kentucky River and anything east of it. That area is filled with multi-million dollar horse farms.
“Very expensive horses that spook very easily,” Tim said. “Animals do not like balloons, so we definitely want to stay away from that.”
So they wait for the wind to change their luck.
Balloon pilots have a two-hour window just after sunrise, and another two hours just before sunset.
That’s the time of day that the winds are the best - light and consistent. As the earth heats up during the day, winds are gusty and explode in bursts.
“If you see a balloon flying at 12 in the afternoon, there’s something wrong,” Tim said.
Even during the ideal flying window, the wind can change from one moment to the next. What looks like a beautiful day can actually be dangerous, with winds too harsh to fly.
Whatever speed you’re flying is how hard you hit the ground during landing, he says.
“It’s better to wish you were flying than wish you weren’t,” Tim said.
In general, Tim says Franklin County is a tough place to fly hot air balloons. Thousands of trees blanket the area. There are horse farms, utility poles, and, of course, the river.
It can be done, Tim says, but it takes careful flight planning. Most flights last an hour.
Tim learned that one morning on an accidental trip to Bald Knob, just after he’d bought his first balloon.
Still a student, Tim groggily planned the flight at 5 a.m. He misunderstood the airport’s weather information and underestimated the wind speed.
His instructor knew he was wrong, Tim says, but part of learning to fly balloons is making mistakes. The balloon flew fast in the brisk wind, carrying them breakneck through Franklin County.
But Tim knew they’d be OK, unless they crossed U.S. 421 into Bald Knob.
“About the time I said that, there goes 421,” he said.
His radio batteries died, cutting his contact with the crew that followed in a van. Cell service was nonexistent.
“I promised my wife I’d be home in time to go to church,” he said. “I got home about 3:30 that afternoon because the crew could not find me.”
A passing motorist gave Tim and his instructor a lift to his house, then handed them the keys to his truck.
“He said, ‘Here’s my keys, bring it back when you’re done,’” Tim said, still amazed. “You don’t find people like that every day.”
He often lands in backyards or on farms, and he says 99 percent of residents are happy about it. They get excited and offer mugs of coffee to Tim and his crew. They take pictures and mail them to Tim.
But residents have shot at balloons too, and the police have been called.
“We really appreciate friendly people who understand that balloons don’t have landing gear,” he said. “We don’t land at airports.”
Balloon pilots follow a “three-strike rule” before each takeoff. Forgetting your radios? That’s a strike. Leaving your car keys on the kitchen table? There’s another.
“Even though they’re simple things, when you get to three, you just stop,” he said.
Tim admits there’s superstition involved in ballooning. Some pilots wear a lucky hat or carry a rabbit’s foot.
Tim’s daughter, Amanda, started riding along with him when she was just 9 or 10.
“I’m not afraid of heights, so it was never a big deal for me,” she said, as her dad and his crew pulled the balloon from its bag.
They decided to take off from a grassy lawn at Robert B. Turner Elementary school in Anderson County.
“But some people are really scared.”
Amanda, now 23, pulls on a pair of work gloves and helps the crew turn the basket on its side, lay out the balloon and position a giant fan at the opening.
She holds tight to the ropes at the mouth of the balloon while the fan fills it with cold air. It writhes on the grass like a red, yellow and blue-striped grub worm.
Crew member Perry Johnson holds the crown line - a rope used to steady the balloon and keep it from rolling around on the ground.
They tie the balloon to the van too, just in case.
Soon it looks big enough to drive a car inside. At 90,000 cubic feet, Tim says it could hold 90,000 basketballs.
He steps in front of the fan, holding a propane burner to the balloon opening. His black ball cap flies off, so he clenches it between his teeth as he shoots the flame inside.
The balloon begins to billow off the ground.
When the crew first pulled up outside the school, there were a few moms in cars and vans, looking at their cell phones as they waited to pick up their kids.
As the balloon wriggled on the ground and began to take shape, kids in passenger seats gawked out their windows, their eyes like saucers.
By the time they took off, the parking lot was full of dozens of kids, parents and teachers, screaming and waving goodbye. They took pictures with their cell phones and jumped up and down.
Volunteers make up Tim’s crew. They do the grunt work it takes to get a balloon off the ground, but they also take care of more nuanced tasks, like informing someone they’ve just landed in their backyard.
Pilot Tommy Steinbock of Crestwood, Ky., says he’s been ballooning for 40 years, starting as a kid who pestered his next-door neighbor until he let him help.
They met through the Balloon Society of Kentucky, and Tim began crewing for Tommy. They fly together for fun, trading off pilot duties.
Perry joined the crew seven years ago. His wife worked with Tim, and she heard he needed help with a flight. Perry drove a lumber truck, and he knew all the back roads.
“He’s the kind of guy you want driving your chase vehicle,” Tim says.
But only once in that seven years has Perry gone up in the balloon.
He prefers the chase, driving behind the balloon in a van, craning his neck to see as it dips below the trees and rises again. He talks to Tim on the radio, guiding him to a soft landing spot.
“We aren’t like airplane pilots, who can turn a key and go it alone,” Tim said. “We cannot do this by ourselves.”
It can be hard to keep a crew together, he said, because they’ve all done it before. There isn’t much in it for them, except their love of the sport and the camaraderie.
“It makes my job easier to have people I can depend on,” he said.
When he retires, Tim says he’d like to fly commercial balloons or banners. Businesses sometimes buy balloons and sponsor pilots for advertising.
“It’s hard for me to put into words the peacefulness,” he said of his unique hobby.
“After a stressful day or a stressful week, I can take a balloon ride and it’s like exhaling.”
“Frankfort Faces” is a series that highlights people from within the Frankfort and Franklin County community. Each feature follows one of the city’s most unique personalities and includes a story, photos and video, which can be found by clicking the TV icon attached to the story.