A Ride Like No Other

Valerie Hnatio-Dotts, 37, of Palm Harbor knew her boyfriend had something different in mind for her birthday. He said the recently purchased bracelet was merely Part I.

Kyle Cutcheon, 39, said they were going to do something unique and fun. He told her to dress casually–and include a hat, sunglasses and sneakers. And be ready before sunrise. Cutcheon, a loan officer for Bay Lending Corp. in St. Petersburg, had reserved a late summer, hot air balloon ride with Tampa-based American Balloons Inc.

The Lutz-Land O’Lakes area never looked so good, recalls Cutcheon. “You see everything, and you see it quietly,” he says. “I had no idea of the number of lakes; we saw horses out of their stables. And the sunrise was the best–as you’re floating through the air. Very romantic.”

It was “breathtaking and peaceful,” says Hnatio-Dotts. “It was romantic for him to even think of that.”

For Tom Warren, the FAA-certified pilot/owner of American Balloons, it was a familiar response. But it’s never another day at the office when you’re in a basket under a flame and 100,000 cubic feet of nylon-encased hot air, floating serenely 500 to 1,000 feet above it all. Above pastures, farms, ponds and neighborhoods–as well as fauna as diverse as deer, wild hogs, alligators, hawks and eagles.

On average, he’ll stay up for an hour–and travel 10-12 miles. He works with a seven-member crew that includes his wife and his mother. The former acts as crew chief, the latter is a notary and has performed marriage ceremonies prior to lift-off. There is also a chase crew in a van that is in radio contact with the pilot and follows the balloon’s path.

“I always enjoy it,” says Warren, who also owns T & A Truck Inc. of Tampa. “You see areas of Florida you can’t see any other way. Nothing is disturbed.”

For the most part, Warren’s world is a customer base largely comprised of celebrants: birthdays, Mother’s Days, anniversaries, engagements, weddings. Individually, the cost is $160 per person, which includes a champagne toast and light brunch. It’s $450 per couple–for an exclusive “sweetheart flight” in the 5′ x6′ basket.

It’s all part of an international pattern. Balloon rides–once the exclusive province of hobbyists and tourists to haunts more exotic than north Tampa–have never been more popular. There are no fewer than a half dozen companies in the Bay Area offering hot air balloon rides. Some have multiple balloons.

“The popularity is at an all-time high,” says veteran pilot Joe Settecasi, who owns Bay Balloons, Inc. of Tampa. “The technology is better, the equipment top of the line, and people now see ballooning as a safe, unique and wonderful experience.

“Plus there’s that element of romance,” adds Settecasi. “I would say that 95 per cent of those I took up were couples. They love the sense of the world waking up. It also lends itself to surprise, although you have to invent a pretty good lie to get up that early.”

That early hour is critical for such a weather-sensitive pursuit. Balloons must have stable air. The energy of the sun is an unwelcome variable. Surface winds of more than about 7 mph are problematic.

“We refuse to fly unless it’s safe,” underscores Warren. “We get weather updates like a 747 pilot. There’s nothing more peaceful, and we want to keep it that way.”

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