It’s practically impossible to miss a hot air balloon.
“It’s one of the largest billboards you’ll ever see,” said Dave Champion, commercial balloon pilot for the Touchstone Energy Cooperative hot air balloon, which was in town over the weekend on behalf of Coastal Electric Cooperative for the Great Ogeechee Seafood festival.
“No one ever ignores it,” Champion said. “Once you see it, you pay attention.”
With good reason.
When fully inflated, the brightly colored balloon stands more than 77 feet tall, is 60 feet wide and holds 77,000 cubic feet of hot air.
The basket suspended from the Touchstone Energy Balloon can carry three people, and Champion spent a good portion of the weekend giving “tethered” balloon rides at the GOSF, meaning the balloon was attached to a rope anchored on the ground.
But Saturday morning, the Touchstone Energy Balloon went on an untethered trip through thick fog outside of Pembroke, carrying Champion, a local news anchor and his wife.
A second balloon, this one chartered by Coastal Electric Cooperative and piloted by Black Creek’s Andy Cayton, the No. 3-ranked balloonist in the world, also took flight, hauling five passengers.
Both hot air balloons spent about an hour in the air, gliding alternately through ethereal white mist and moments of brilliant sunshine before bumping down on private property off George Edwards Road within about 100 yards of one another.
In all, the balloons traveled a distance of about four miles.
And to paraphrase Cayton, it was a happy four miles.
“This is a job where your customers almost always leave happy,” said the soft-spoken and unassuming Cayton, who holds three world records in ballooning. His company Feather Air gives one-hour flights to the adventurous, for a $200 per-person fee that includes a post-flight champagne brunch.
“Everybody comes in with a smile and leaves with a smile,” he said. “It’s something everybody should do at least once.”
Once was all it took to hook Champion, who didn’t have a flying background when he took his first ride in a balloon in August of 2000.
“I took the flight and immediately said, ‘I’ve got to do this,’” he said.
By 2001, Champion had his license — which carries similar requirements to fly fixed-wing aircraft — and started flying for Touchstone in 2003.
Since then, he’s logged more than 860 hours in the air.
Champion said there was a message in the balloon’s trip to Bryan County.
“Coastal Electric is a Touchstone Energy brand and has certain specific ideals — we believe in integrity, accountability and commitment to community,” he said. “That’s our gold standard and 760 cooperatives across the U.S. are members of Touchstone. We’re here to advertise that brand for them.”
But it’s also about the flying.
“The serenity, that’s why you do it,” Champion said.
Cayton, meanwhile, first came by his flying experience courtesy the U.S. Army.
He spent 22 years as a Blackhawk and Chinook helicopter pilot, the last decade of his career flying special operations at Hunter Army Airfield as part of the famed 160th Nightstalkers.
When Cayton was medically retired, he decided to give ballooning a try.
“I thought it would be an easy, cheap way to keep flying,” he said. “There’s nobody shooting at me and it’s low maintenance.
“But flying balloons is just like flying helicopters or airplanes in that regard,” he continued. “There are the same requirements. They’re numbered aircraft, FAA certified and you have to meet all the requirements to fly a balloon that you do to fly a helicopter.”
But it’s probably not be as expensive to fly. Cayton said the cost is similar to that of buying a car.
“You can buy a brand new car and pay a lot of money or you can buy a good used car, the price ranges are about the same,” he said. “You also need support equipment … about $20,000 for a complete system for a weekend balloonist.”
For more information about Touchstone Energy’s balloon program, go to http://www.cbaballoon.com/. For more information about Cayton and Feather Air, call 912-858-2529.