By Kristi Kates
I became involved with ballooning in 1968 when my father, Frank,
formed a balloon club in the Flint area with nine other men, aeronaut
Lesley Pritchard explains, it was a real quirk, as none of them had
ever even seen a balloon - yet they each contributed $500 and bought
one. Only my father and one other man learned to fly, so I had many
opportunities and I never passed them up.
Pritchard, who was an artist before she became an aeronaut, says that
the abstract notion of ballooning is part of what captivated her -
that a colorful bag of fabric could become a vehicle to carry me
aloft, she says. Now a full-time ballonist, Pritchard most recently
launched Walloon Balloon Adventures in Walloon Lake so that she can
offer the ballooning experience to Northern Michigan residents. And
her flight path to starting that business was a long and interesting
In 1971, I went to work building balloons with some very creative
friends who had decided to begin manufacturing balloons, Pritchard
remembers, by 1978, I had quit my job teaching special education in
Gaylord, and moved to Dallas, Texas to pursue a career in ballooning.
Pritchard, who now has over 40 years experience flying balloons,
says that she finds herself fortunate to have had a pretty exciting
career. Her aforementioned father was the first National Hot Air
Balloon Champion in 1970; Pritchard herself competed at the national
level for many years. In 1988, she was the first woman to fly a hot
air balloon over the Continental Divide; and she also earned the right
to represent the U.S. in three international Coupe de Gordon Bennett
Gas Balloon Races. I was most thrilled about that - its a
prestigious event which began in 1906 and is the oldest aviation
competition in the world, she explains.
Other notable flights of Pritchards include one from Albuquerque into
the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico, and from Denver, Colorado to the
Arctic Circle beneath the Northern Lights.
But all of these achievements didnt just float Pritchards way - she
most definitely had to work at them.
Ballooning is a form of aviation called lighter-than-air, or LTA,
which is regulated just like every other form by the Federal Aviation
Administration, Pritchard explains, the FAA controls all aspects of
the operation including pilot certification and aircraft
airworthiness. To earn a pilot certificate, you must fullfill the
requirements for aeronautical experience including flight instruction
and solo hours, complete ground school study with emphasis on Federal
Aviation Regulations and meteorology, pass a written exam and a flight
I am rated as a Commercial Free Balloon Pilot and Instructor without
limitation, she continues, which means I am also licensed to fly gas
balloons, which are a bit different than hot air balloons.
HEAT OR GAS?
Pritchard, who owns a 105,000 cubic foot hot air balloon and a 30,000
cubic foot gas balloon, says that while both can lift about 2,000
pounds gross weight, their respective operating processes are somewhat
The hot air balloon uses a propane burner to heat the air inside the
balloon, and flight duration is limited to onboard fuel supply, which
is typically 45 gallons of propane for a balloon of this size, she
explains, the hot air balloon derives its lift from the difference
between ambient (outside) air and the temperature at the top of the
balloon, which could reach as high as 250 degrees on a typical flight.
Duration therefore depends on air temperature and the total weight of
passengers and pilot. Availability of landing sites is also a factor
here in Northern Michigan, so sometimes we choose to land even when
there is onboard fuel remaining.
The gas balloon, on the other hand, uses helium for lift in the U.S.
(European gas balloons use hydrogen, which Pritchard points out is
cheaper), and sandbags or water for ballast - and is a quieter
Once the gas balloon is filled completely and weighed down by
occupants and gear, you can spill a scoop of sand and it will silently
lift off the ground, Pritchard says, dump a whole bag, and the
balloon might rise swiftly to 1,000 feet before it levels off again.
The most incredible difference between hot air and gas is that once
you lift off in a gas balloon, you can fly for several days and nights
without landing. It is the most extraordinarily pure way to fly, and
sort of like camping in a box in the sky. Of course, meteorology and
flight planning becomes the biggest issue in this type of flying,
since you are completely at the mercy of the weather.
Although Pritchard took her ballooning around the country for years -
including ballooning businesses in the Dallas-Forth Worth area and in
Colorados Vail Valley - it was Northern Michigans weather and
beauty, among other factors, that continued to draw her back.
Northern Michigan has always been home, and I always brought a
balloon with me when I came home to visit, Pritchard says, when I
returned again after Y2K, I continued to fly quietly - even though
its pretty hard to keep a low profile! This summer, I went back to my
roots, which are on the shores of Walloon Lake, and decided to launch
a seasonal balloon business called Walloon Balloon Adventures.
Walloon Balloon Adventures now offers Champagne Flights at sunrise and
sunset from May through October; Pritchard says that although you can
fly year-round, shes choosing to pack the balloons away until spring
after the fall colors have waned. The flights last around an hour,
with the entire experience lasting three to four hours, from inflating
the balloon to landing, and Pritchard usually carries up to four
passengers per flight (plus the pilot.)
Generally, the first part of the flight takes place at treetop level,
following the contour of the earth so closely that you can reach out
and pick leaves, Pritchard says. Most people are amazed as we drift
along so silently, with only intermittent blasts from the burner.
When I increase the temperature inside the balloon by using the
burner, the balloon ascends to much greater height - typically two or
three thousand feet - where you can see really great distances and the
amazingly beautiful scenery this area affords.
Miles and miles of Lake Michigan and the Northern Michigan countryside
are viewable from the balloon; some flights carry passengers over
farmlands or state forests where wildlife are visible. A factor thats
perhaps often not thought about is that theres zero windchill in a
Its not any colder in the balloon than on the ground, because youre
travelling with the wind, Pritchard explains, therefore you also
float along with no sense of movement or turbulance at all. Liftoff is
very gentle, and you barely notice that the earth seems to be slipping
away as the balloon rises. Landings are typically smooth as well - an
ideal landing would bring the balloon to rest with only the slightest
bump as the basket touches back down on terra firma.
Pritchard says that some individuals bring a camera, while others just
absorb the experience; overall, she thinks of ballooning as a very
I hope people enjoy the entire experience, from the inflation of the
colorful envelope to the pack-up in some fallow field after a
memorable flight, she says, each flight ends with a champagne
celebration, a tradition which dates back to the first flight in 1783.
While its true that I do like that part also, my favorite part of
this entire journey is meeting new people and sharing this most unique
adventure with them.
Walloon Balloon Adventures may be contacted at 231-459-5699 or via
email at firstname.lastname@example.org. A website (www.walloonballoon.com)
is currently under construction. Hot air balloon flights are offered
at $300 per person; advance reservations are required, and gift
certificates are available. Individuals interested in becoming a chase
crew member for the balloons are also invited to call for more