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Up, up and away

Robert Carlton’s mornings begin at 4, while the sun is still tucked in for the night. While sipping on a cup of freshly brewed coffee, Carlton picks up the phone and calls the weather briefer. The weather determines if he’ll show up for work.

The take-off point remains unknown until the winds fill him in on their secrecy. For a hot air balloonist, this uncertainty and trust in the weather are all part of the job.

Carlton works for Fantasy of Flight in southeast Polk City near Lakeland and also sub-contracts his services to other local ballooning companies in Tampa and Orlando.

Instantly charmed by his subtle humor and easy-going attitude, a passenger’s discomfort, fear or anxiety is eased. Always first to crack a joke, Carlton laughs at a passenger who asks, “Where are we taking off from today?”

A simple reply sets the tone for the day, “From the ground, silly.”

From the parking lot, a test balloon filled with helium is released. This last test helps the pilots determine what field they will take the balloon to for take off. There are several vacant fields that Carlton and the other pilots can use, including USF’s field along 50th Street.

“We take off from USF when the winds say we should,” Carlton said.

Canceling the flight is an option at all times. It’s all about having a feel for the weather.

“The older I get and the longer I fly, the more conservative I get,” he said. “We older balloonists have a saying, ‘We would rather be on the ground wishing we were in the air, then in the air wishing we were on the ground.'”

Carlton began ballooning in 1976, at the age of 24. After hearing about a race in Ft. Lauderdale, he decided to check it out from the ground.

“I thought it was amazing; these people were floating around with nothing but a bunch of hot air and a big bag,” he said. Enthralled by ballooning, Carlton decided to check into the cost of one.

“I found out what it cost, found out I couldn’t afford it, found another kid that couldn’t afford it and together we bought a balloon.” Carlton has been hooked on ballooning ever since.

Before sunrise, Carlton, the other pilots and passengers all drive to a field with safe wind conditions. The balloon is always at the wind’s mercy. “Once you’ve taken off, you’re dedicated to making the trip,” he said. There is no turning around or turning back. That is why Carlton has kept ballooning for 27 years. “It’s an adventure into the unknown.”

When the decision is made to make the flight, a lot of work must be done. The pilots and crew unload the balloon, also called the envelope, and roll the 70 feet of parachute material out onto the ground. The wicker basket is hooked to the envelope and a gas powered fan then fills the balloon with air. The balloon begins to come alive, taking its shape and showing off its unique array of colors and designs.

Once filled with air, the envelope is ready for the heat that lifts the balloon off the ground. Carlton squats behind the burners and squeezes the handle. This allows the propane to flow to the burner and ignite, causing a five-foot flame to shoot into the envelope.

The burners are ignited one by one, and the balloons rise from the ground to their heights.

The basket is held close to the ground by a crew member while passengers step into it. After the baskets lift from the ground, Carlton and his passengers are at the wind’s fate.

“The hardest part of the job is making that call,” he said. “Sometimes you’re making that call at 4 in the morning and you’re guessing what the weather is going to be like at 8 o’clock; that’s a hard call because you want to fly but reality is that you’re at the mercy of the weather.”

Throughout the years, Carlton has learned that conservatism is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to ballooning. “Before it was never a question if it was too windy, it was how much of a tree line do we need to get enough shelter so we can get the balloon inflated to take off,” he said. “The older I get the more I re-think and say ‘why don’t we sit this one out.'”

After a smooth landing and departure from the sky, Carlton treats his guests to the traditional champagne toast and Irish prayer. “The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warm hands. We’ve flown so high and so well that God has joined you in your laughter and set you back into the loving arms of mother earth,” he quotes from memory.

Carlton’s transition from sport ballooning to commercial ballooning took place in 1978. After competing in the Bimini race, a hot air balloon race from the Bahamas back to the mainland, Carlton was hired by World Balloon Corporation. Carlton left Miami and moved to Mexico.

“What I did not realize at that point was that there was a big difference between sport ballooning and commercial ballooning,” he said. “All of a sudden you have the pressure of a sponsor that has you there and the weather is kind of marginal, but you’ve got to get up and go.”

Sponsors pay big money to have that balloon go up. They are not concerned about the wind or the rain.

“I realized rather quickly that I was in over my head,” Carlton said.

“Their image, what they were trying to portray, was the outgoing, go-for-it type of attitude, living on the edge.” For Carlton, working for World Balloon Corporation was a learning experience. “They were always pushing; it was a big step for me from sport ballooning.”

After flying with World Balloon Corporation for two years, Carlton moved to Tampa and began flying for Sport Balloons. “That’s where I learned the other end of the commercial business, the repair industry,” he said. In 1986, Sport Balloons picked up a contract with Disney, allowing Carlton to travel again. Carlton put up the Mickey Mouse balloon in 1986 and participated in a ballooning tour of 75 cities. In 1995, Carlton, who is now 43 years old, switched career paths once more. “I got to a burn-out point,” he said. “I was going, and going and going, so I had to put some balance back into it.”

Carlton and two other balloonists started Celebration Aviation in 1996 in Tampa.

“That gave me a fixed base operation and I stared doing rides,” he said. “It worked out real well in the sense that it still left me doing what I wanted to do with a little less pressure.”

In the past 27 years, Carlton has experienced every end of ballooning: hobby ballooning, sport ballooning and commercial ballooning. Carlton said his life is centered on all three aspects. He is paid for what he does, yet he is without the stress of a sponsor. Carlton is also able to call the shots. If the weather is only marginal, he can wait for another day.

Carlton now makes his living by enjoying a hobby he is completely fascinated with.

“The best thing about it is that I’m able to share something I can do and I know with other people,” he said.

“That to me is the reward or the good part about the whole thing; I love to take people.”

In Carlton’s mind, success is not measured by the amount of money one has, or the wonderful accomplishments one has achieved.

“It’s more of a satisfaction,” he said. “I’m successful in my own right.”

Going to work is not a challenge or an obligation for Carlton.

“To me, it’s just a reward being able to share something I love with others.”

If interested in taking a ride, students can contact Carlton directly by phone at (813) 240-4844, or a trip can be scheduled through Fantasy of Flight in S.E. Polk City at (863) 984-3500. The total ballooning experience lasts aboutthree hours and ranges in costs from $150 to $170 per person.