Guest Viewpoint: Flying high above Iredell

Posted at 8:09 PM on Oct 20, 2017

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BY LEESAH BRAGG

Just after sunrise on Friday a small crew spread Charles Page and Kristie Darling’s hot-air balloon out on the grounds at Purple Heart Homes. A member of the team used a fan to fill “Big Oh!” up with air. After Page fired up the propane, I climbed into the basket with another first-timer, Ashley Doan, who works as a project manager and superintendent at Purple Heart Homes.

Then we were off, ascending quickly into the morning sky in time to watch the culmination of a breathtaking sunrise. All around us other balloons were soaring above Statesville. At one point, we counted 10 other balloons, including one shaped like a giant crab and another in the form of a hound dog.

During our pre-flight briefing, Sam Parks, Carolina BalloonFest’s official balloonmeister, predicted “really nice flying all weekend.”

For Media Day, balloons launched in the early morning hours from five official locations, Purple Heart Homes, Mitchell Community College, Doosan, G.L. Wilson and Signal Hill Mall.Other balloon pilots planned to launch from the lawns of several area elementary schools.

Upon arriving at the new Purple Heart Homes’ facility, we were met by several staff members who helped get the balloon set up.Mark Dillard, a veteran and CFO of Purple Heart Homes, joined our crew, along with Operations Manager Kathy Morris.

Before take-off I was excited to learn a little more about Purple Heart Homes, which was founded by veterans Dale Beatty and John Gallina in 2008. The nonprofit’s mission is to help our disabled veterans live comfortably and age in place in their own home.

Once we reached a maximum altitude of 700 feet in “Big Oh!,” which measures 77,000-cubic-feet, we sailed along and took in the view of the Charlotte skyline to the south and Table Rock and Grandfather Mountain to the west.

I was really enjoying myself until Page explained quite matter-of-factly that, “You cannot steer a hot-air balloon. You can only go in the direction of the wind.” He adjusted the altitude by using a rope to let air out of the balloon.

There was no real reason for me to worry. Page is a pro. He’s been flying for nearly 40 years.

From the moment a hot-air balloon leaves the ground, he told me, the pilot is looking for a patch of flat, open ground for landing. We floated in a southerly direction for a little less than an hour and drifted slowly back to earth for a smooth landing.

Our chase team – Darling, eight-year crew member Dusty McAlpin and balloon artist Jim Thompson – helped find the landing spot. We touched down on property owned by Steve Wexler, who happened to be home at the time of our landing. He wasn’t all that surprised. It was the second time in the past three years that a hot-air balloon had landed in his yard.

While heading back from our early morning adventure, Darling shared some of the highlights of her more than 30-year love affair with ballooning.

“We decided to buy our first balloon after our very first flight.We bought it from Jim (Thompson) who told us, ‘If you buy this balloon, it will change your life,’ and it absolutely has,” she said. “We have met the most wonderful people and have got to do the most amazing stuff.It has been an adventure.”

Charles and Kristie are the owner/operators of Big Oh!Balloons, a hot-air balloon service company based in the Cool Springs area since 1981. They specialize in recreational flights, including private champagne pleasure flights. They’ve helped celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, proposals and even witnessed a few weddings while up the air.

As for me, it was an experience I will never forget. I can’t possibly think of a better way to spend a Friday morning.For more ballooning stories and adventures, be sure to check out the 44th Carolina BalloonFest in person.

Leesah Bragg lives in Statesville.

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