Full of hot air

Picture yourself in a New Mexico field, on a plateau, flanked by mountains. All around you, masses of color are slowly inflating with a gentle “huff, huff, huff.”

That’s what it looked and sounded like when several Columbus area residents took in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in early October.

Among them was Christopher Raskob, Cummins’ director of corporate aviation.

Raskob fostered an early interest in balloons, beginning during his childhood in Albuquerque. He flew his first hot-air balloon 25 years ago with his uncle.

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“Anything that flies does intrigue me,” he said.

Hot-air balloons, fairly simple constructions of baskets and the brightly colored top sections known as an envelope, can typically rise 10,000 to 15,000 feet above sea level. Height is governed by the size of the balloon, and most balloon pilots stay below 10,000 feet.

But as Raskob got older and had a chance to fly airplanes, he fell in love with the mystique of traveling a long distance quickly. So ballooning was set aside until he met Sherschell and Erik Eaton in Columbus. The hot-air balloon enthusiasts are owners of Skyline Hot Air Balloons in northern Virginia.

“The thing I think that surprises people is that it’s so peaceful,” said Sherschell, a ballooning enthusiast for 25 years. “It’s like taking a walk in the clouds.”

The air of friendship

Through the couple, Raskob got more exposure to the sport of hot-air ballooning.In May 2012, Raskob set off to Elkton, Maryland, to buy a hot-air balloon, sight unseen. He bought it and christened it Awaiting Inflation.Raskob got his ballooning license later that year and continues to enjoy the sport, in part, because it is a social activity.

“You can’t fly a balloon by yourself,” he said. “You need some other people to come out and help you launch and follow you on the ground. Otherwise it’s a long walk back. You quickly find out who your friends are.”

Some of those friends also chose to accompany Raskob and his partner, Vicki Griffin, on a trip to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, where Raskob would fly Awaiting Inflation in the company of more than 600 balloons.

Michelle Aton, Kurt Weisner, Lisa Weisner and Griffin packed into two trucks and set off on the 19-hour trip to the American Southwest.

So, why Albuquerque?

Ballooning has wind limitations, rain limitations, and you can’t fly into the clouds. In a season when the rain doesn’t let up, a drier climate such as Albuquerque’s is a welcome sight for a balloonists.“Balloons start coming out there almost by accident,” Raskob said. “A local bought a balloon. They quickly learned that Albuquerque has some unique topography.”The Balloon Fiesta, held for its 44th year Oct. 3-11, draws eyes and attendees from around the world.

Picture the azure skies, unmarred by clouds, projecting for miles overhead.

For balloonists, sometimes the event can be lost in the business of flying, of waking up before sunrise every day during the event’s nine-day run and going through all of the launch meetings. For the ground crew, the event includes navigating an unfamiliar city following a balloon, sometimes driving through heavy traffic.

“There’s no words to describe it,” crew member Aton said. “The scenery is beautiful, with the mountains on one side and the plateaus on the other. It’s a sight to see. People say, ‘It’s on my bucket list.’ They just need to go.”