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21Country: Taking flight in a hot air balloon before Angola’s Balloons Aloft festival

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HUNTINGTON, Ind. (WPTA21) - Soon, dozens of hot air balloons will take flight, in Angola’s annual festival, Balloons Aloft.

Roanoke pilot Chris Smart has nearly two-thousand flights under his belt, and gave ABC21 a bird’s eye view, of 21Country.

Smart owns and operates the Dream Catcher Balloon Team.

He pilots three balloons, each different in their uses.

Passengers looking for a romantic getaway in the sky, birthday and holiday gifts, or simply crossing off a bucket list item, will ride in Dream Catcher III.

Smart also flies competitively in the Dream Racer.

But this year at Balloons Aloft, he’s been hired to pilot Northeast Indiana’s RE/MAX balloon, for advertisement.

“I actually started crewing for a local guy, back in ’89. Just like the crew that’s helping me today,” Smart explained.

Several men, including his stepson and father, helped unpack the balloon from it’s basket, laying it across a lawn in Huntington.

“You have to have good family, good friends - it’s not a one man sport. You got to have at least 2-3 people to help you set up, pack up,” he continued.

Smart uses a hi-powered fan to cold inflate the balloon.

After its opened enough to begin heating the air, Smart begins to fire up the torch.

“That flame don’t have to touch the fabric… if it gets close to the fabric, it disappears,” he said.

The balloon begins to rise as the air inside it heats. 

Several of his crew help keep the basket grounded so passengers can step inside.

It has enough room for four people, including Chris.

On the ground next to Smart, is two tanks of propane that will fuel the trip.

Smart retired late last year.

His hot air balloon business has dozens of clients waiting for a ride.

Weather often determines when he can fly, and his passengers are on call for the next availability.

“I very seldom, if ever fly with one person, or with an empty basket,” he said, “I imagine right now I have 50-60 people waiting for a ride. Whenever its flyable, I’m on the phone trying to get someone lined up.”

“I do have a lot of proposals, a lot of bucket lists,” he added, “I get a lot of birthday gifts, Christmas gifts.”

Wind is the biggest factor on where Smart determines where the balloon will start its trip, and the jet stream determines how fast and far he will go.

Smart often torches in the balloon to get it higher in the air.

He has two burners, one of them designed to be much quieter, so it won’t startle live stock below.

“There’s a big delay when I burn and get lift, and also, when I vent,” he told us, “it’s something you pick up.”

In late June, five people were killed after a balloon crashed in Albuquerque.

The pilot addressed concerned over hot air balloon safety.

“The biggest danger in ballooning is power lines,” he said, gesturing to some down below, “like right here, you can see the poles, but you can’t see the lines.”

He says crashes often occur when pilots become fixated on landing, that they lose focus on their surroundings.

Smart encourages anybody looking to hire a pilot for a hot air balloon, to do their research on their record.

He says being up in the sky, is one of the most serene places to be.

Smart’s passengers for the sunrise trip, John and Susan Etter, agreed.

“My kids have both been on one for a wedding present, and I wanted to do one myself,” John said, “wouldn’t mind doing one in the fall when the leaves are turning.”

“It was fun, it was great,” Susan told us, “it’s beautiful from above.”

At the end of the Etter’s trip, Smart broke out to champagne glasses, and sparkling grape juice - a balloonist tradition celebrating a safe landing.

He also recited the balloonist prayer: “The winds have welcomed you with softness, the sun has blessed you with his warm hands. You have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in your laughter, and he has sent you gently back in the loving arms of Mother Earth. Cheers!”

“A lot of people, I know, say they’re afraid of heights. But once you get up here, and you’re just floating along,” Smart said, “it’s just so peaceful and calm. It’s hard to describe the feeling we have here. It’s like you’re floating on a cloud… it’s something you outta try once in your life.”

Chris Smart will be in Angola this weekend for the annual Balloons Aloft.

You can find more information on that event here.

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Daniel Beals

Daniel Beals is the producer of the ABC21 feature franchise “21Country”. He is constantly on the lookout for ideas that capture the “people, places, things, and history” that makes Northeast Indiana unique. Feel free to reach out: dbeals@wpta21.com.

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