|Balloon Ride Over Yuma|
A Yuma Sun photographer and reporter had the chance to take a ride on Maria Chieruzzi's 'Lofty Idea' balloon during the first day of the Colorado River Crossing Ballon Festival.
|Yuma High Landing|
Teachers, students and school workers at Yuma High, who were watching the Colorado River Crossing Balloon Festival balloons from campus, had an exciting and unexpected treat when one landed on the football field in front of them.
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Balloon fest kicks off with Friday launch
The Saturday morning launch will be at 7:15 a.m. at West Wetlands Park, 1st Street and 12th Avenue, with evening events held at Desert Sun Stadium, 3500 S. Avenue A. Gates open at 6 a.m., and entertainment will be provided until 10 a.m.
The Sunday morning launch will be held at 6 a.m. at West Wetlands Park.
Maria Chieruzzi's favorite part about flying a hot-air balloon is seeing birds soaring in the skies — below her.
Her second favorite thing is meeting people and sharing her passion.
“People get excited. They want to touch the balloon,” Chieruzzi told the Yuma Sun.
She had an opportunity to share her passion Friday morning. The 20th annual Colorado River Crossing Balloon Festival kicked off with a media launch at the combined athletic fields of Gila Vista Junior High and McGraw Elementary Schools near 24th Street and Arizona Avenue, and the Yuma Sun went along for the ride.
Balloonists, crew members and members of the media trickled in for the 6 a.m. check-in, hot coffees in hand to ward of the early-morning chill.
As the crowd gathered, Mario Jordan of the Caballeros de Yuma said 16 balloons were expected to launch shortly after sunrise.
“You're welcome to help. Just don't light up a cigarette,” he joked with spectators.
Yuman Jerry Paulin, one of the pilots waiting for the launch, flies Wound Up, a Colt 77A that holds 77,000 cubic feet of hot air. It is six stories tall.
He has been flying less than a year.
“I'm the rookie in the family,” Paulin said, noting that his son first became a pilot and he has been around hot-air ballooning for 20 years.
“They say your first ride is your cheapest.” He pauses. “Because then you have to buy one.”
His business, The Filter Factory, used to sponsor a balloon, but then he decided he wanted to be more than a passenger and he got his pilot's license.
“It's very calm, very peaceful. The earth moves away from you. It puts a smile on your face.”
Paulin flies at least once a month in the winter and often travels to festivals.
He pointed out that there are 3,000 licensed balloon pilots in the United States. “It's a close-knit community.”
Chieruzzi, a Simi Valley, Calif., resident, pilots Lofty Idea, a 57-foot Lindstrand balloon with a volume of 77,000 cubic feet.
She always dreamed of flying, literally dreamed of flying during her sleep. So the idea of being “above all” has always fascinated her.
“Balloons used to fly over our house in Simi all the time,” Chieruzzi recalled. “Every Sunday the kids and I would lay on the trampoline and watch them go over us. I would say, ‘I'm gonna ride one,' and the kids would laugh.”
“The kids would say she had her head in the clouds,” Dave, her husband, said.
Little did they know that one day she literally would have her head in the clouds.
A year ago, for her 40th birthday, her sister, a real estate broker, got her a ride in a Re/Max balloon.
She thought, “That's it. I'm going to buy one. But I've got to start a business to pay for it.”
So she started Details Above All Interior Design. Even her logo is a balloon. “My clients all think I'm crazy.”
She's logged about 100 hours in the past year.
“If you consider that every flight is typically 45 minutes to an hour, in a year that's a lot of flying. I fly every chance I get. Sometimes that's multiple times in a week. It's addicting, let me tell you.
“Dave said he would never get into one. Now he loves it,” Chieruzzi said.
Dave, a police officer, is a couple of years from retirement. Then they plan to buy a motorhome and travel from festival to festival.
And so ballooning has turned into a family affair. Dave is the “crew chief” while their two children, daughter Kalyn and son Rylan, round out the crew team.
They follow the balloon in their “chase” truck, pulling the trailer they use to haul the balloon.
“As the crew, our job is to stay with her or ahead of her. I never know when she'll decide to come down,” Dave said.
“She has put down in some pretty precarious places.”
As the pilots and crew volunteers prepared to launch Friday, they were reminded of the many surrounding lettuce fields and told to avoid trampling over them.
Organizers then released small balloons to check wind direction. Passengers, after signing several release forms, were briefed on safety procedures.
Chieruzzi's Lofty Idea fits two or three people — either three kids or two adults. Some “party balloons,” she noted, carry up 30 people.
“Sometimes I have to ask — and I hate doing this — how much they weigh.”
She doesn't need to ask her passengers on Friday; it's only a party of two: a Yuma Sun photographer and reporter.
“There's no graceful way to get in,” Chieruzzi explained. “You kind of throw yourself in.”
The rest of the spiel sounded like the safety warnings before boarding a roller-coaster ride.
The landing might be rough, she warned. “It's like jumping off a kitchen table. And the basket might tip over and we might end up falling on top of each other and the basket might be dragged, especially if it's windy. Sometimes we walk away with some bruises.
“Remember to keep your hands in the basket, especially when landing. If it drags, turn around — your butt is better for dragging. And keep you knees slightly bended. Do not exit until told to. We're in a balloon; if you get out, we will go up. The riders are ballast.”
The colorful balloons — including a delightful one in the shape of a bumblebee — finally take off between 7:30 and 8 a.m.
Just in time, according to Chieruzzi.
“The rule is we don't fly three hours after sunrise. We only fly in the morning because as the sun rises, the ground heats up and creates thermals. We don't want to be in them. The balloon starts going up, but it's a false lift, and it will suddenly come right down.”
Lofty Idea lifts off very smoothly and effortlessly, leaving behind waving spectators.
Up in the air, Chieruzzi maneuvers the balloon by alternating the two burners. However, the direction is mostly up to the wind.
“A pilot is constantly aware of what's going on. There's a lot going on in the pilot's head. And we have to keep passengers entertained at the same time,” she said.
The balloon soars up to 800 feet. The maximum height is 10,000 feet, at which point passengers would need oxygen. During her training, Chieruzzi had to fly up to 8,000 feet.
A nearby balloon skims over rooftops, which Chieruzzi explains is called contour flying. She spots another balloon floating over the river and notes that some balloonists like to “splash and dash.”
After nearly an hour of viewing Yuma from a totally different perspective, it's time to come down to earth. As the gondola gradually comes down, people on the ground look up and wave. Fenced-in dogs run around in circles.
Chieruzzi throws cheese puffs to see where the wind takes them. She weighs her options — there are several empty fields. She prefers grassy fields but any vacant field — sans power lines — will do, even an empty street.
Landings are very unpredictable. “You just don't know where the wind will take you,” she says.
Finally she opts for the Yuma High School Doan Field, but at the last minute it looks like the balloon is headed a different direction.
But before the balloon leaves the area, Chieruzzi makes the quick decision to come down. And before a surprised audience, Lofty Idea lands — with a hard thud — precariously close to the bleachers. And then it tips over, and its passengers tumble about the basket briefly.
Teachers, students and school workers, excited about the unexpected treat, approach the basket. Chieruzzi invites Rhonda Fry, YHS special services department chairwoman, and Michelle Butler, assistant principal of academics and special education, to go on brief tethered rides.
Then special education students and school custodians help deflate and pack the balloon.
“It was fun for our kids,” Fry says.
“I never expected this. I was just going about my work,” custodian Florencio Castro tells Chieruzzi. “You made our day. It was exciting.”
Afterwards, Chieruzzi treats her passengers to a longtime tradition: a glass of champagne. And she hands each one a certificate acknowledging their adventures aboard Lofty Idea.
Quick facts about Lofty Idea:
• Volume: 77,000 cubic feet
• Envelope weighs 220 pounds
• Burner weighs 49 pounds
• Burners put out two million BTUs versus a home furnace that puts out 200
• Basket weighs 157 pounds
• Empty fuel tanks weigh 49 pounds each
• Each tank holds 15 gallons of propane totaling 132 pounds
• With pilot weighs 791 pounds
Mara Knaub can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6856.