Two thousand feet below, the tile roofs of the tony golf course community in Boca Raton appear to be sitting atop Lego houses. Passengers in airplanes probably see this kind of thing all the time, but when you're standing in an oversize picnic basket that's dangling from a two-story hot-air balloon, the experience is altogether different. For one thing, it's very quiet up here -- except, that is, for the occasional blast of flames that pilot Wayne Hodnett pumps from two propane burners into the giant balloon.
The only other noticeable sounds this morning are the faint pops of tennis balls bouncing off racquets on the tennis courts below as the balloon ascends. But up this high, at 2000 feet, silence reigns, and the view is magnificent. The sun is still rising, and a cloud bank hovers over the Atlantic Ocean at the same altitude as the balloon. The dark-green expanse of the Everglades stretches to the west, and Matchbox-size cars glide along the thin gray ribbon of Florida's Turnpike.
There's traffic because it's a weekday, and Hodnett's balloon is airborne because his Just-A-Blast Hot-Air Excursions is the only balloon company in Broward or Palm Beach county that offers weekday flights on a regular basis.
Hodnett, age 53, was turned on to ballooning in 1973, when a fellow member of the Arkansas Air National Guard bought a balloon and took him up. Hodnett eventually bought his friend's balloon and got an FAA-approved commercial balloon license in 1978. Working as a National Guard recruiter, he flew balloons wherever his job took him, places like Austin and Spokane. When he retired in 1992, he moved to South Florida and went into the balloon business full-time.
His experience shows as he flips the levers on the burners, adding just the right amount of heat. "You have to think 20 minutes ahead about where you're going to be and fuel consumption," notes Hodnett.
The rush of flames is loud, and the heat is intense, but the noisy burners are a necessity. Because heat rises Hodnett has to make sure that the air inside the balloon -- which is made from heat-resistant, rip-stop nylon -- is warmer than the air outside. As the inside air cools, bursts of heat are applied to keep the balloon aloft. If Hodnett wants to descend, he uses vents at the top of the balloon to release the hot air, and short blasts from the burners slow the fall.
Steering is even more complicated. Hot-air balloons don't have steering devices, so pilots have to read the air currents at various altitudes. The idea is to bob up and down until you've found a current that's going your way. This morning Hodnett's having a tough time locating a breeze that will take this rainbow-striped craft from a launching point in Delray Beach to its destination in Boca Raton. The problem is that the strongest winds are located too close to the ground. In the case of high winds, landings can be dangerous because a pilot is sometimes forced to bump the basket into a treetop to slow the balloon's forward motion before completing the descent.
On this flight Hodnett faces the opposite problem. Without a strong enough current to reach the landing site, he aims for an empty field between a farm and a few houses. It's the first time he's used the lot for a landing, but the neighbors don't seem to mind. As the balloon touches the ground, they wave from their screened porches, then return to their newspapers and cups of coffee.