What's on Tap

What's on Tap

Paid to have fun: Pilots soar, share at WRAL Freedom Balloon Festival

Posted May 27

— When Mark MacSkimming saw a hot air balloon land near an aunt's house, he was fascinated and, like many who watch these soaring, silent and colorful craft, he wanted to know more. MacSkimming approached the pilot that day and started on a six-year course of learning to fly.

Nowadays, MacSkimming spends about 12 weekends a year traveling the United States with his crew and the Movin' Magic balloon. On Saturday at the WRAL Freedom Balloon Festival, MacSkimming joined dozens of other pilots in the air over Fuquay-Varina, and, at the end of the successful flight, gently set his balloon down in a neighborhood, drawing interested residents and continuing that cycle of curiosity.

The weather cooperated Saturday morning. Clear skies and light winds created almost-perfect flying conditions and allowed the pilots to compete in two tasks in the sky over Fleming Loop Park. In the first, teams were asked to take off at least 1 kilometer from the park and return in the air to drop a beanbag on a target. The second task involved finding and following another balloon to a second designated target area.

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MacSkimming's crew chief, LT, said the competition came second for the Movin' Magic. "We just try to have fun doing it," he said.

 2017 WRAL Freedom Balloon Festival

Before, during and after the approximately 30-minute flight, MacSkimming balanced serious technical and balloon history information with entertainment.

"We have a lot of fun, but this is very serious business," he said.

MacSkimming compared ballooning to other expensive hobbies. "Unlike a horse," he said, "it doesn't need to be fed when you are not using it.

"The nice part about a balloon is you get other people to pay for you having fun," he said.

The crew of the Movin' Magic and about a half dozen others chose an open field beside Piney Grove Baptist Church for their takeoff. All around, pilots prepared baskets while crews expanded the "envelope," or the silk part of the hot air balloons.

First the colorful silks were laid out on the ground, then heavy fans came out to fill them with air. It is propane that pushes the balloons aloft. The roar and heat of the powerful fires broke through the morning light.

Once airborne, the balloons stayed clustered close together as they headed back to Fleming Loop Park where the first challenge waited.

From high and low, left and right, pilots plied the winds to ferry their craft as close as possible to a large X and dropped their bags. MacSkimming eased alongside the square target zone, but was unable to get close enough to hit the mark.

Next came the challenge of finding another balloon down in a cul-de-sac and hitting that target. With winds from the left, MacSkimming zig-zagged up and down to avoid drifting too far in that direction only to end up far right of the second target.

Tasks complete, MacSkimming radioed his crew and readied to set the balloon down.

He used the trees to help slow his airspeed. The basket of the balloon dragged through some tall pines only to set down gently and upright on a Fuquay-Varina street. The crew quickly arrived to gather up the balloon, and before 9 a.m. they shared the traditional Champagne toast and were headed for breakfast.

Off the festival circuit, MacSkimming returns to his day job, as vice president of sales and marketing for a company that makes traffic signals, and hires out as a pilot for private rides near his Pennsylvania home as for corporate clients like 84 Lumber.

His expertise allows him to fly "special shapes" – balloons with a design that varies from the standard teardrop, and he's traveled to fly in countries all over the world.

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