Flying colors: Hot Air Ballooning In The Hilltowns


Notchview Reservation in Windsor is 3,100 acres of field and forest owned and managed by the Trustees of Reservations. Best known for its cross-country ski trails, there are 27 kilometers of groomed trails for beginners and experts alike ' it also doubles as a hot air balloon launching site.

Or at least it does a few minutes before 7 on a Saturday morning in late September. The grass is silvery with dew and the moon, only a few days past full, hangs pale and chalk-colored on the western horizon. The sun glints like fire through the eastern line of maple and birch trees.

It's lovely and bucolic, the serenity broken only by the sounds of Worthington balloonist Paul Sena and his two-member crew ' wife Judy and son Jared ' working quickly in the still-cool dawn to unfold a massive, multicolored balloon.

Making a jump ' balloon lingo for flight ' in the early-morning hours or at dusk is de rigueur. The reasons are many. First, in order to fly, the temperature inside the balloon must be approximately 100 to 120 degrees higher than the air temperature outside. Even in September, once you hit midday, it's literally too hot to fly. In July, Sena often launches at 5 a.m. or earlier.

Winds are also lighter in the morning hours, which makes both launch and landing easier. Finally, early-morning flights also avoid thermals ' vertical air currents caused by the ground heating up ' that can complicate controlling balloons while they are aloft.

Minutes count, so the Senas hustle. They unroll the balloon, a long streak of brilliant silk that will measure some 105,000 cubic feet when fully inflated. They hook it to a wicker gondola approximately 5 feet across.

Jared, who at 22 has been working the ground crew since elementary school, holds taut a long rope that's connected to the balloon's top, while Judy rolls out an industrial-sized fan that, when turned on, fills the balloon with cool air.

Slowly, the patchwork of red, orange, yellow and purple begins to rustle and expand. The soft fabric undulates in the dawn. After a few minutes, Sena fires up the propane burner and sends a 15-foot tower of flame into the balloon, causing it to literally leap off the grass, jerking the gondola upright.

To this point, preparations have been quick but measured. The Senas work largely without talking, silently ticking off items on a prelaunch checklist, and the passengers awaiting their flight have stood to the side, admiring both the balloon and the well-synchronized effort that goes into preparing it for flight.

But now that hot air has entered the picture, the balloon is like a jumpy teenager begging to be given the keys to the car. It literally yearns to leave the earth. Judy Sena hangs a metal step on the gondola and the passengers ' a couple from Jamaica Plain who are spending the weekend in the Berkshires and me ' clamber in with Paul. Then she pulls the step back.

It's a moment that seems to call for some sort of ceremony ' perhaps a countdown to liftoff, or maybe a brief but flowery farewell speech to the ground crew.

At a minimum, the pilot ought to calmly lay out the ground rules for flight, maybe announce the destination and the planned route, speculate about what altitudes we'll hit, and maybe toss in a line or two about how fast we'll travel.

But ' and this is part of what makes ballooning the unique and addictive sport that it is ' flying this way owes as much to spontaneity as it does to careful planning. Basically, once that enormous and vibrant bag of hot air wants to float, there's not a whole lot left to do but go along.

So there's a little bump and before you know it, the earth is 50 feet below. Judy and Jared are the size of matchsticks, little toy people already busy reloading the truck so that they can follow the balloon on winding Hilltown side roads.

In the time it takes to gaze in four directions, Sena reports that we've already ascended approximately 1,000 feet.

Hot air rises and nothing proves this quite so emphatically as riding in a balloon. The gondola, which seemed a perfectly reasonable place for four or five people to stand together, appears to have shrunk. Notchview is a tiny square of grass amid a rolling bed of deep green forest. All those cross-country ski trails have disappeared.

It's surprisingly warm this high up. Sena taps a finger against his altimeter, then shoots another blast of fuel into the balloon. 'The wind is taking us due east at a pretty good clip,' he says. 'I'm going to take us up pretty high so you can see what that's like.'

Below, you can just make out a lone crow flapping over trees beginning to turn. The moon is still visible, but you're actually looking down in order to see it. On the one hand, it's unsettling. Vertigo competes with nausea. There's a reason people don't have wings, isn't there?

But it's also peaceful, this slow silent drift over New England's verdant hills. 'Look at that,' says Sena in a tone of genuine admiration. 'The world is turning real slow down there without us.'

WITH JUST TWO FORMAL members and a smattering of honorary ones, the West Cummington Balloon Association is the largest ballooning organization in Massachusetts. Its charter member, Cummington lawyer Bill Volk, has a bumper sticker on his balloon trailer that reads 'On the 7th day, God went ballooning.'

The group came into existence four years ago when Volk and his family were indulging in 'that time-honored New England tradition of minding your own business by watching your neighbors from the second-floor window.'

In this case, they were watching a family move into their new home on West Street in West Cummington. The first thing that was removed from the van was a hot air balloon. That put a quick end to the casual snooping.

'At 10:10 I went over and introduced myself and at 10:20 the West Cummington Balloon Association was officially formed,' said Volk. He and new neighbor Scott Magoon went ballooning that very afternoon.

That kind of camaraderie is a key piece of what so many aeronauts find attractive about their sport. Ballooning attracts a certain kind of person ' you have to be a bit of a daredevil. But you also need a mind for details; you have to know what the weather is and what it's likely to be over the course of the hour or so you're going to be aloft.

You also need to be flexible. Flight plans are for airplanes. In a hot air balloon, you go where the wind takes you. Sena has landed on everything from frozen lakes to Hilltown side roads to the bed of a parked pickup truck.

Every year as summer wanes and the leaves begin turning, Volk convenes the West Cummington Balloon Association's festival in Cummington. Pilots new and old, ground crews, family members whose lives are inevitably affected by their loved one's love and the 20 or 30 gawkers that hot air balloons inevitably attract ' all gather between the Cummington town pavilion and a cornfield. Balloon rides are free today, and so is the food.

This year, owing to thunderstorms passing through, the group could only do tethered balloon flights. Volk, glasses perched on his forehead, gazes up at Sena, who is giving a mother and daughter their first ride. They look delighted.

'Look,' says Volk, 'we ride in a laundry basket attached by a few ropes to a big bag with a hole in it. We're surrounded by tanks of highly combustible fuel and every few minutes a 15-foot flame shoots overhead. We go up thousands of feet and lose radio contact with our ground crews. We can't stop and we can't steer.'

He turns away from Sena, who has begun his descent, and raises a bushy eyebrow. 'Why wouldn't we want to do this?'

FORGET ABOUT WILBUR and Orville Wright. Hot air balloons were the first successful technology to get humans off the earth and into the sky. The first recorded flight took place in Paris on Nov. 21, 1783. King Louis XVI wanted criminals to do the piloting, but the honor went to Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes.

The earliest consistent use of hot air balloons was militaristic ' the French used them to spy on the Austrian army in 1794. The Union army used hot air balloons to monitor Confederate troop movements during the Civil War.

But that particular benefit was soon outweighed by the technological progress of the 20th century. Airplanes and helicopters proved more efficient. The use of balloons subsided until approximately the late 1960s and early 1970s, when somebody figured out that they're a heck of a lot fun.

'Balloons are big, they're physical ' that's the kind of stuff I do,' says Sena. 'It filled a niche for me.'

Sena has the weathered look of a man who spends most of his time outdoors and maybe doesn't sleep as much as he ought to. His longish hair is tucked under a baseball cap, but strands of it blow around his shoulders. His family roots in Worthington are deep ' his parents ran the town's auction house.

In addition to ballooning ' Sena logs maybe 100 flights a year for a total of approximately 90 hours 'off the deck' ' that mean in the air for non aeronauts ' he also operates an outdoor saw mill, hays, and in the winter, sugars. Snowshoe Farm, which he runs with David Gage and Richard Mansfield, has some 12,000 taps spread across eight sugarbushes in three Hilltowns.

Just in case he's got a free hour, he's also a volunteer firefighter.

Sena considers commercial ballooning to be performance art. And indeed, while piloting, he keeps up a running monologue that blends balloon expertise ' did you know that at 10,500 feet (a height Sena generally avoids unless customers request it) the pilot is required to carry and use oxygen? ' with the flair of a local tour guide.

'We're right over Cummington,' he says, pointing downward. 'See that roof over there? That's my friend Bill Volk. Let's see if we can wake him up.'

TECHNICALLY, A HOT AIR balloon is an 'aerostat' ' that is, an object which is static within the air. Once aloft, a balloon moves in sync with the air mass through which it floats. There are wind currents for sure ' on this flight, Sena will travel almost 20 miles in 90 minutes ' but they're impossible to notice.

What we call balloons are actually three separate pieces ' the envelope (the balloon), the gondola and the burner, which supplies propane to the envelope.

The envelope is made of heat-resistant, rip-stop nylon coated internally with plastic. Once a year, balloons are subject to professional inspection. Although they do deteriorate over time and with each flight, they are capable of logging up to 500 hours of flight time when well-maintained.

The wicker gondola has a tiny control panel that generally includes a compass, an altimeter, a fuel gauge and a pyrometer that indicates the temperature inside the balloon.

The propane tanks ' like scuba tanks, but thicker ' stand upright on the gondola bottom. Fuel is released via the burner, which is braced over the pilot's head, through a hand valve.

Throughout the flight, Sena has one hand overhead on this valve. It's the one measure of control he has. When heated, the air is less dense and is lighter than the outside air and so the balloon rises. As the air inside the balloon cools, the balloon becomes heavier and sinks back toward earth. Rising and falling in order to take advantage of wind currents is the only way a pilot can manipulate the balloon's speed and direction.

Like all aircraft, hot air balloons are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. You need an FAA license to fly one. For a private license, Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 141 requires eight hours of flight with 10 hours of ground training. The commercial add-on ' needed if you plan to take up paying customers ' requires an additional 10 hours of flight and 20 hours of ground training. Certified pilots, like Sena, double as teachers. At any given time, Sena has a handful of students learning to pilot hot air balloons.

Most pilots begin their study as ground crew members. Several of Sena's best ones have gone on to get their pilot's licenses, he says. Ground crews set up the balloon, follow it from below using a blend of visual and radio contact, and then help land the balloon ' grabbing tether ropes to keep the balloon from bouncing off the earth, steadying the gondola so passengers can disembark. From an educational perspective, the work is indispensable, but in the end, there's no substitute for getting off the deck.

'There's so much you can learn but the bottom line is that the only way to fly a balloon is just to go up and fly one,' says Sena.

Most balloon pilots go on to get commercial licenses. Ballooning isn't a cheap hobby, and a few paying customers a year can help offset the cost. Fuel can run several hundred dollars per flight. Sena went through 3,000 gallons of propane last year at a little over $2 a gallon. And while you can buy a used balloon for as little as a few thousand dollars, a brand-new commercial balloon like Sena's runs closer to $30,000.

On top of that, there is the cost of miscellaneous equipment like the fan and the radios and maintenance: replacing the fuel tanks, for example, or servicing the burner. The annual inspection runs several hundred dollars. You've got to have a trailer to transport the balloon, and a vehicle strong enough to pull the whole load. If you're going commercial, then you've got to carry liability insurance, which can run several thousand dollars.

Sena charges just over $200 per person for a group flight, and $300 for a private flight. His gondola can hold up to five people. While the price might sound steep for an hour and a half of floating over the Berkshire foothills, Sena says the profit margin for Worthington Hot Air Ballooning is slim. Ballooning is a fickle way to make a buck. The necessary blend of clear skies and fair winds occurs maybe 90 days a year, and a pilot just can't count on having five paying customers every one of those days. Sena shrugs. The sport is far too much fun to dwell on making money, he says.

SENA DOES FLY THE balloon over Bill Volk's Cummington home, but Volk says later that he slept through it.

Somewhere over Plainfield and Ashfield, the balloon crests at just over 6,000 feet above sea level. There it follows gentle winds that bear it almost due east. The landscape looks like a green ocean ' rolling hills with pale bands of mist floating in valleys. Here and there the forest breaks for a village or a farm, but at 6,000 feet, western Massachusetts looks mostly like a wilderness.

Sena's passengers from Jamaica Plain, Seton Lindsay, 34, a speech pathologist, and Jason Gregoricus, 40, the director of student and alumni services at North Bennet Street School in Boston, snap pictures of the landscape below and chat readily with Sena. Gregoricus lined up this flight weeks earlier, but given the vagaries of the weather didn't know it was a go until Sena called the couple at their North Adams bed-and-breakfast at 6 a.m. It's a ride the two are not likely to forget ' and not just because it's the first time either has been up in a hot air balloon.

As they soar over Plainfield, Gregoricus leans over to whisper in Lindsay's ear. He fishes in his jeans pocket for a band of white gold and platinum hand-crafted by students at his school.

He asks Lindsay if she'll marry him. Through tears ' and not a few kisses ' she says yes.

Sena is uncharacteristically quiet during the proposal, leaning far over the gondola to study the Hilltowns below. He's been flying commercially for 16 years and he knows his place during moments like this. After all, it's the sixth or seventh time he's hosted an aero-engagement.

Sena gets his passengers through word of mouth, referrals and Internet searches for hot air balloon trips in the Berkshires. He makes approximately 90 commercial flights a year, giving several hundred people an aerial view of the Berkshire foothills and the Pioneer Valley.

He's also taken people up to celebrate wedding anniversaries or to scatter the ashes of loved ones. He's done private parties and corporate picnics. Last year, a group of friends hired him to take them up in groups of two on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

They wanted, said Sena, to mark the day with something special rather than simply remembering the horror of the attacks.

Aside from ballooning for business, Sena makes time to have fun with it, too. He's carted his balloon by van and airplane for flights as far north as Maine and as far south as Costa Rica. He's floated over the Rocky Mountains, seen New Zealand from above, and is returning this fall for his sixth visit to Ireland. For those trips, Sena has a balloon that literally folds into a suitcase that doubles as the gondola.

Sena swears that the decision to become a pilot ' he went from never having flown to earning his commercial license in just over a year ' was a spur of the moment one. He studied with the late Ed Lappies of Hillsborough, N.H. Lappies was one of the founders of the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, which started in 1972 and is said to be the largest hot air balloon gathering in the world.

'I guess I just thought it would be something cool to do,' Sena said. 'I haven't stopped feeling that way.'

'PAUL IS THE ARTIST,' says Bill Volk of Sena, who taught him to fly. 'Paul is the best contour flying balloonist anywhere ' I mean anywhere.'

Contour ballooning is the name given to the fine art of navigating one's balloon close to the earth ' coasting over hills, gliding a few feet above hayfields, floating so low over beaver ponds that you can see your own reflection.

'At 500 feet, you can have a real nice cruise,' says Sena.

He likes to joke that he can't steer, but that verges on disingenuous. It's true he can't steer the balloon the way he can steer, say, a tractor, but his ability to nudge the balloon here and there on its 90-minute flight is impressive.

Just outside Conway, he leans over the gondola and spits, then watches the expectoration drift downward, eventually outpacing the balloon before disappearing amid the trees. It's reminiscent of a little boy spitting off a bridge, but Sena has just taken a mid-flight technological readout.

'What we'll do is, we'll drop about 500 feet and pick up that wind that's working right along that little valley,' says Sena. 'That'll take us a little north by east and we can swing by that farm over there and say hi to the kids.'

It sounds about as likely as threading a needle with a bike chain, but Sena pulls it off without breaking a sweat. In a matter of minutes, the balloon is skimming the tops of pine trees ' gently rising over one or two that looked to be sure candidates for a collision. A monarch butterfly flutters past. You can almost reach out and grab a pine cone.

And a few moments after that, Sena touches down in the damp hay of the Fischer family's field on Bullitt Road in Conway. Half a dozen kids, a dog and a handful of neighbors have run out to greet the balloon. The expressions on the young faces are no different than those on the older ones ' this unexpected visit, this enormous brilliant machine, is a cause for joy and wonder.

Sena is grinning, too, as we rise back up and drift east again.

AS THE TRIP WINDS to an end, Sena tries to land on a baseball field near Conway center, but the winds won't cooperate. There's also a dense fog rolling in from the valley which means it's time to leave the skies.

The balloon drifts south a couple of hundred yards, finally coming down in a sloping field behind Jan and John Maggs' home and antique shop in Pumpkin Hollow.

The Maggs ' who Sena has not met before ' are already out with cameras, as are almost a dozen neighbors who line the road, pointing in amazement. By the time the Senas are folding the balloon and tucking it back into its trailer, most of the bystanders have joined the crew and help finish the job. Crew, pilot and passengers will eventually return to the launch site in Sena's van.

It feels a bit like a party, this mix of friends and strangers working together, and it's a testament to the magic of hot air balloons.

The Senas set up a little table with home-baked banana nut muffins, fresh grapes, cheese and crackers. They pour champagne and everyone ' not just the pilot, crew and passengers ' partakes.

Sena toasts Gregoricus and Lindsay, congratulating them on their engagement, then glances up at the sky.

'Champagne and propane,' he says with a smile. 'It's the breakfast of ballooning.'q

Sean Reagan can be reached at