Larry Fortin’s most memorable balloon ride was noteworthy for its landing.
“I landed in a field full of pig manure,” he recalled. “The balloon itself was fine, I deflated it on some dry ground, but the crew and the trailer were drenched and odoriferous.”
Fortin was a founder of the South County Hot Air Balloon Festival, which is celebrating its 33rd year July 22 to 24 at the URI Athletic Fields run by the Wakefield Rotary Club. He is one of the many volunteers dedicated to the balloon festival through the years, as it evolved from a small event with a few balloons to a full-fledged festival.
His interest has remained with the balloons, serving as Balloonmeister over the years, coordinating the balloonists, keeping a close eye on weather conditions, and making sure everything runs smoothly.
Fortin flew his own balloon, Spirit of America, in many of the festivals. He retired from flying, but is on the field every day checking the wind and the balloons.
Balloonists offer rides in the early morning and at dusk, when winds are the calmest. They also offer tethered rides, in which the balloon remains tied to the ground and rises about 150 feet into the air.
Fortin’s second most-memorable landing?
“Walpole State Prison. They were more afraid of me taking somebody out,” he noted dryly. “It was minimum security but I had some officials ask me what we were doing. I just asked them if we could deflate, they said that was okay.”
Fortin offered the obligatory bottle of champagne and it was promptly accepted.
“It’s done to commemorate the first [French] balloonists in the 1800s,” he explained. “If they carried a letter from the King and a bottle of champagne, people on the ground would know they came from Earth. It’s a tradition that is still carried on today.”
According to www.centennialofflight.gov, the first public demonstration of a lighter-than-air machine took place in France, when Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, two brothers who owned a paper mill, sent up an unmanned hot-air balloon. Before that, they noticed that paper bags placed over a fire expanded and rose and saw the possibilities and made increasingly larger balloons of paper and linen. They flew a 10-meter wide balloon and tested it on June 4, 1783, in the marketplace at Annonay. The brothers went to Paris and built a bigger balloon. The Montgolfiers flew the first passengers in a basket suspended below a hot-air balloon – a sheep, a rooster, and a duck – at Versailles in September. The balloon flew around 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) before landing safely.
In October, tethered balloon rose 84 feet with its first human passengers. In November a free ascent with two men aboard was a success. In January of 1784, a huge hot-air balloon carried seven passengers to 3,000 feet. But the balloon, from then on called a Montgolfiere, needed very little technical improvement since; hence the traditional salute to early balloonists by way of earthy gifts for startled spectators.
Fortin added a New England twist to his offering:
“I used to carry maple syrup and champagne, I’d offer one or the other. The more citified people took the champagne and the farmers took the maple syrup.”
But Fortin said that sometimes you are not welcome even if you are not an alien.
“We always have hot air if we have to leave,” he said. “I once landed in West Warwick and there was a guy yelling at us to get out of there, so we just heated the air and took off. We found out later that it wasn’t the owner’s son after all. It was a complete stranger.”
Fortin has over 30 years of experience floating through the air in a wicker basket allowing the wind to determine his course.
“I thought it was an extremely neat way to fly,” Fortin said of his initial interest in ballooning. “You just put hot air in a bag. After I bought a balloon I realized it wasn’t that simple.”
He also learned he would not be using a balloon to get to his day job or ever maintain a fixed schedule for flying. Balloon flight is strictly dependent on the weather.
“It’s not reliable for transportation, it’s just a pleasure type of thing. It’s definitely recreational.”
A hot air balloon requires a crew of about three to get up in the air. The balloon – or “envelope” as balloonists refer to it – is laid out on the ground. Then a high-powered fan blows air into it while two crewmembers hold open the “mouth.” Another crewmember stays at the top of the balloon and holds the “crown.”
Once the balloon is inflated with air, they fire up the propane burner to heat the air in the balloon.
“Then the heat does the work,” Fortin said.
The pilot has some ability to control the flight path. They raise or lower the balloon to catch air currents in a specific direction. Different layers of air in the atmosphere can move in different directions, allowing the pilot to steer. To descend, the pilot allows the air in the balloon to cool or releases hot air out the crown.
Fortin recalled being caught in a snow squall in northern Massachusetts:
“You let the balloon drop and you can’t see the ground because of the snow. At some point, you fall at the same rate as the snow and the visual effect is that the snowflakes are hanging there. If you go faster, the illusion is that the snow is floating up.”
Ballooning is a team effort. Once the balloon is in the air, the “chase crew” heads toward the intended landing area. The balloonist and crew are in contact via radio.
“When you take off, you have an idea which way the wind is blowing, so you land in a favorable area,” Fortin said. “I’d leave from Hope Valley, the winds would bring me into South Kingstown by the potato fields about an hour later.”
If the landing is in an area with buildings, “you tell them go up the street, take a left and in back of the gray house, be ready with a drop line,” Fortin explained. “It’s pretty controlled.”
While ballooning basics have not changed much since the first balloons took to the air in France in the late 18th century, improvements to fabrics have made it easier.
“The fabric has improved greatly,” Fortin said “The lifespan of a balloon, in the past, was about 300 hours; it is now 400 to 600 hours. There are urethane coatings; the fabric is typically a rip-stop nylon with a silicon calendaring. It allows you to carry a much lighter fabric.”
When a balloon is at the end of its life, it is used as a “rag bag.” A rag bag is laid on its side and inflated with a high-powered fan so children of all ages can go in and play and see what the inside of an envelope looks like. There will be a rag bag available at this year’s balloon festival.
The size of the envelope determines how many people it can carry. A small balloon carries only the pilot, but larger balloons can have 12 to 16 passengers. Most of the balloons at the South County Hot Air Balloon Festival carry two to four.
While he doesn’t fly anymore, Fortin still has a hand in the festival. Since its inception, the Wakefield Rotary has expanded the event from a few balloonists to include music, food, carnival rides, trapeze act, remote control planes, racing pigs and other entertainment. Yankee Magazine named the festival a Top 20 Rhode Island Event for 2011.
Adult admission is $10. Children 14 and under are $5. Families are $25. Parking is free. RV camping is available on site. The Rotary Club of Wakefield donates all proceeds to charities.
For a detailed schedule of events, visit www.southcountyballoonfest.com.