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Lighter than air

As the sun continued its climb overhead in the early-morning sky, yards of bright-red nylon lay strewn across the field in the tall, dew-laden grass. Nearby, a gigantic wicker-basket lay on its side.

A hot-air balloon ride – the 30th wedding-anniversary gift from Pauline Shenkberger to her son and daughter-in-law, Angela and Jim Shenkberger, was about to begin. The threesome stood watching preparations by Melanie and Phil Sikora, owners of The Big Red Balloon Company.

The balloon-crew hustled, pulling and straightening the fabric across the field, until it stretched to its full length of six-and-a-half stories high.

Melanie Sikora settled a large, industrial-strength fan on the ground, as it blew cool morning air into the mass of fabric, which 15-year-old crew member Ryan Gallagher held open. With arms high overhead, they held the rim of the balloon fabric open creating a long, red balloon tunnel.

Manning the propane-tank controls on the wicker balloon-basket, Phil Sikora fired a loud blast of hot air into the inflated balloon, which then slowly rose from the ground to a vertical position, above the now upright basket.

The celebrants clambered into the basket as the loud, fiery blasts grew longer. Lifting only three or four inches off the ground, the basket drifted silently for a few feet before beginning a slow, steady ascent.

“It was like floating on a cloud,” said Jim Shrenkberg.

Melanie Sikora and Gallagher, the chase crew, hopped into the white company van to follow the flight for a rendezvous at touchdown.

Transferred to Tampa, Phil Sikora, who flies corporate jets, was to be moved again. Enjoying life in Tampa, Melanie Sikora said they decided to stay and start the hot-air balloon business they had so often dreamed of. A Federal Aviation Administration licensed balloonist since the mid-80s, Phil Sikora is also an FAA balloon flight-instructor and designated examiner.

The business start-up was well underway, when Melanie Sikora, who is afraid of heights to such an extent that the third rung of a step-ladder is her limit, realized she had never been up in a balloon.

Knowing she could not market a service she herself was afraid to use, she said she gathered her courage and took her first balloon ride. Much to her surprise, she said she felt calm and safe while floating at altitudes ranging from treetop high to 1,000 feet high.

“You have no sense of motion,” she said. “Because the wind is propelling the balloon, you have no feeling of wind rushing against you, or of speed. You feel that you’re standing still and the earth is moving below.”

Many prospective customer-couples consist of one person wanting to fly and the other, fearful of heights and afraid to fly. Because she can tell her own story, Melanie Sikora said her problem became an asset to the business.

In 1995, David Justice started his company, Celebration Aviation, after flying balloons for others since 1978. Some of his 10 balloons are novelty shaped, including four which represent the four seasons: a daisy, a sun, a pumpkin and a snowman.

Justice’s company includes one of only two Florida FAA certified balloon inspection and repair stations.

“We call it a repair station even though the majority of what we do is the annual inspection,” said Justice. “The balloon is an aircraft and all certified aircraft must have an annual inspection by FAA certified mechanics.”

Justice said that ballooning has been rated as the safest form of aviation, or travel in general. Because clear skies and light winds are needed for safe flights, balloon pilots tend to be very conservative the days they fly, according to Justice.

Justice has flown balloons in 15 countries on five continents. He was a member of the crew that flew over Moscow’s Red Square with Disney World Europe’s filming crew, shooting important European sights for the grand opening of the park. The film is shown in the Disney Circle-Vision attraction, a 360-degree circular movie screen, which engulfs the audience in the film images.

Ron Martin, owner of Skywalker Balloons, has been flying balloons since 1979, but has been in Tampa for just a year. His five balloons include novelty-shaped balloons such as a champagne bottle which is 147 feet tall. His biggest balloon is a dragon named “Ogie” which is 138 feet long. The novelty balloons are used primarily for exhibition.

As with all balloonists, safety is a top priority for Martin’s flights. “If there’s any hint of bad weather, windy conditions or whatever, we don’t fly,” said Martin.

Martin said most of his passengers have received gift certificates to fly, and about half of them are retired people. He said some people are “kind of white-knuckled” until they get used to the balloon.

The cost of a balloon flight runs about $160, $145 for children, and even higher in other parts of the country, according to Melanie Sikora. But, she said, both the initial outlay (the Sikora’s second and newest balloon, eight-and-a-half stories high, cost $60,000) and the upkeep for balloons are expensive. Also, the Sikoras provide brunch at a restaurant after the post-flight champagne toast. Justice includes soft drinks and champagne in-flight as well as the touchdown toast. Martin provides an after-flight “first class picnic” along with the champagne, all of which are included in the cost of the ride.

Martin said that long term, the balloon envelope (fabric) must be replaced periodically since the Florida heat is hard on fabric. The annual FAA-required inspection costs anywhere from $200 – $600 per balloon, though novelty-shaped balloons cost more.

Sometimes either the wicker on the basket must be replaced or the cowhide lining on the bottom of the basket, which is protection for the bottom when landing. The latter can run to $200 or more. Short term expenses include 25 to 30 gallons of propane gas burned on each flight, according to Martin.

The Sikoras said customers of every age, from the 20s to the 90s, arrange flights for celebrations of all types, including birthdays, marriage-proposals, weddings – especially second-weddings and wedding-anniversaries.

The Shenkbergers are a perfect example.

“It was great,” said 83-year-old Pauline Shenkberger, “But it ended too soon. My son and I both have motion sickness, but it never bothered either of us during the balloon flight.”

“It was incredible,” said Angela Shrenkberg. “Even nicer than I thought it would be. You didn’t get any swaying and rocking of the basket. The balloon was just as smooth as pie. The pilot was so good that he actually took us down over a grove of orange trees. He skimmed the top of the trees and we were able to lean out of the basket and pick oranges!”

Melanie and Phil Sikora said she wondered if they would get tired of the hot air balloon business, although Melanie Sikora said she didn’t think she would.

“Every single morning when I come out (to a balloon launch), no matter what’s going on with my life, I get excited all over again.”