Hot-air Balloon Pilot Rises to the Occasion
As Lisa Fusco’s pickup truck approaches an elevated, wide-open space in Hadley called Sylvia Heights, this writer has the music from that scene near the end of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — the one where the wizard and Dorothy are getting ready to take off in a hot-air balloon — playing in his head. And he can’t get it out. This is regrettable, but there is simply nothing else to regret on this Sunday afternoon during Columbus Day weekend. It is sunny and warm, and the winds are calm, almost negligible. Fusco, owner and chief pilot of Northampton-based Pioneer Valley Balloons, would spend the next few hours wearing out the phrase ‘perfect conditions for a ride,’ as she not only talked with BusinessWest about her venture, but showed what it’s all about.
Lisa Fusco is colorful, witty, and direct. She doesn’t mince words.
“People who do this … they don’t give up their day jobs,” she said of what would have to be called the hot-air-balloon business. And with that quick assessment, she spoke volumes about her 16-year-old entrepreneurial venture, for which things are looking up — literally, but certainly not figuratively.
Indeed, these are not the best of times for this industry, if one could call it that. The economy is still somewhat sluggish, and riding in a hot-air balloon (Fusco usually charges $250 per person for an hour-long ride) is an activity that epitomizes the phrase ‘discretionary spending.’ Also, there have been a few high-profile accidents in recent months, including a mishap in Virginia that cost three people their lives.
But even when times are better, this business is extremely fickle. Balloons can only take off in certain conditions, and this is New England, where the weather isn’t great to begin with can change in a matter of minutes, easily wiping out a day’s or weekend’s worth of revenue. And, in general, this is an activity most people do only once.
But Fusco, who also owns a bar in Easthampton called Casey’s Big Dog Saloon as well as some rental properties, and was at one time part-owner of Northampton Airport, isn’t in this for the money — not just the money, anyway.
“I absolutely love being part of so many people’s memories,” she said when asked what she likes about this business and why she got into it.
She even provides rides to people who know they are nearing the end of their lives and covet a chance to do something they’ve always dreamed of doing.
“We’ll get people who are going in for surgery, and it might be pretty serious, so they’ll say, ‘well, I at least want to do this before the unknown happens,’” she said. “We also get people who just survived cancer and people who are terminally ill; we had one woman who was given a month to live, and this was one of the things she wanted to do before she died. She was absolutely delighted and had a fantastic time.”
Soon after arriving at Sylvia Heights, Fusco and several assistants begin getting things ready for takeoff. The blue and black balloon, once sponsored by Teddy Bear Pools & Spas and named, appropriately enough, Teddy Bear, is unpacked and stretched out on the ground. Fusco then directs cold air through a large gas-powered fan into the open end, and the balloon very quickly takes shape as it is attached to the 450-pound wicker basket. With a long blast of heated propane, the balloon reaches its full dimensions and the air temperature needed to lift off, and, along with the basket, it is eased into an upright position. As Fusco yells instructions, the three ‘passengers’ jump in and prepare to leave terra firma behind.
While transporting her balloon, basket, passengers, and support staff to the liftoff spot in Hadley, Fusco revealed that she has a fairly serious fear of heights.
“I would never climb onto a second-story roof,” she told BusinessWest, adding quickly that she is completely at peace piloting a balloon several hundred feet in the air. “You get used to what they call the sight picture up there; you get used to being off the ground and what it looks like.”
How Fusco attained this comfort level, and grew a business while doing so, is an interesting story.
It begins with an episode when she was an Environmental Police officer. She was investigating a report of someone doing some shooting near Northampton Airport in 1996 when she met the facility’s owner, Dick Giusto. As they talked, eventually the subject of ballooning came up (Giusto was and still is a balloon pilot), and Fusco, an entrepreneurial sort looking to start some kind of business, became intrigued.
Despite that fear of heights and the fact that she’d never been in a balloon, she aggressively pursued what she saw as a real opportunity.
“It took about a year of really not doing anything else,” she explained. “When he [Giusto] was flying, I was either ground crew or I was getting a lesson. One time, we waited six weeks to get a flyable day.”
She eventually attained her balloon pilot’s license — one has to have a certain number of hours in the air and meet several other requirements to get one — and started Pioneer Valley Balloons in 1998.
When the economy was better, Fusco could book close to 100 flights a year; this year, she’s logged a fraction of that number.
She flies year-round, but early fall, when the foliage is at its peak, is the most popular time. Conditions are actually at their best in October and November, she went on, because the air is clear, there is less humidity, and it takes less fuel to gain altitude (balloons rise when the air inside them is warmer than the air around them).
“Balloons like cold weather,” said Fusco, adding quickly that passengers generally do not, so she books few flights during the winter. But there will be some, most involving couples getting engaged or celebrating an anniversary.While they like cold weather, balloons don’t like many other forms of weather, including high humidity, rain, or winds gusting about at more than 8 knots (roughly 12 mph), said Fusco, meaning that there are many days when she can’t go up.
It’s not unusual to have a flight rescheduled several times because of uncooperative weather, she said. “And that’s when you have to build a rapport with passengers, because you want them to hang in there and not give up on this.”
Few do give up, because a hot air balloon trip is a common wish-list item, and the Pioneer Valley, especially the pocket in and around the Amherst-Hadley area, is one of the best places for a ride because of the scenery and an abundance of wide-open spaces that are ideal for taking off and landing.
As the balloon begins to lift, one gets the sensation of being in a glass elevator. It rises quickly, and if one looks to the side, he or she could see its large shadow on the field below. Once airborne, the balloon is completely controlled by the wind. Only, on this day, there isn’t much — if any. A full 15 minutes after lifting off, the balloon has moved only a few dozen yards to the west. It almost feels stationary 500 feet in the air, providing breathtaking views of the UMass campus to one side, the Holyoke Range to another, and Mount Sugarloaf to yet another. Four other balloons can be seen to the south. Recognizable to Fusco by their colors and patterns (Giusto is piloting one of them), they are nearly stationary as well. Fusco tries to find some wind by taking the balloon higher and then lower by alternately heating and cooling it via the amount of propane burned (longer and more frequent blasts take the balloon higher; shorter, less frequent bursts take it lower; and a steady amount will keep it level). In between the very loud and extremely hot blasts of propane, she talks some more about the business of making memories for her customers.
Fusco said there’s been one wedding in her balloon. It was a cozy ceremony, obviously, for which she used a larger basket that can hold six people.
“The justice of the peace was a riot — we had a really good time,” she recalled, adding that engagements are far more common and equally memorable. She said she generally knows when someone is going to pop the question, and will give a signal when the conditions are just right. She can’t recall anyone ever saying ‘no,’ which is good when the parties are 500 feet in the air.
Also common are flights to mark round-number wedding anniversaries, said Fusco, adding that she’s handled many 30th and 40th celebrations, and even a few 50th anniversaries. She’s had a 93-year-old woman up for a ride, and gets a number of people in their 70s and 80s who have waited years, or decades, to draw a line through this item on their to-do list, but eventually got around to it.
“This and skydiving — those are still big ones for a lot of people,” she said, adding that, in addition to the flight, there is usually a get-together for passengers and crew after the balloon lands, complete with champagne and appetizers.
But the memories are not reserved only for those in the basket, she went on, adding that they’re created for those on the ground who are seeing a balloon up close for the first time, and especially for the individual whose property becomes a landing spot.
Tradition holds that the balloonist awards that person with a bottle of champagne, said Fusco, and most of the time, the property owner is well aware of this.
“Sometimes people will come running out of the house saying, ‘where’s my bottle of champagne?’ she noted, adding that she’s put down in a backyard on numerous occasions and has never had anything approaching a problem. “Usually it’s a big thrill for them to have a balloon come down in their yard; they take pictures and come out and talk with us, and they learn something about ballooning.”
Overall, landowner relations are very important, said Fusco, adding that, if the balloon has to put down in a field and crops in that field are damaged, every effort is made to find the landowner and make appropriate compensation. Doing so is only common courtesy, but it’s also good for business.
“It doesn’t happen often, but when it happens, word will get out,” she said. “And you don’t want to be that person who never had the consideration to go talk to the landowner, because if we don’t have cooperation from them, we don’t have anything.”
The relative calm in the basket is interrupted as Fusco yells (even though she doesn’t have to in such close quarters), “look … a hawk!” And there, just to the northeast, roughly halfway between the balloon and ground, is a large red-tailed hawk circling and looking for dinner. Humans don’t get to see birds fly from above like this (except on NOVA), and it is quite an experience. So, too, is watching the people below. Hot-air balloons are a common sight in this picturesque part of the state, but Fusco says they never fail to draw a crowd. As the balloon hovers above, families come out of their homes, stand in their yards, and wave. And cars pull over to the side of the road, and their passengers jump out to catch a look.
As she talked about the science of flying a balloon, Fusco reiterated that pilots can only take them higher or lower; the wind determines where they go, how quickly they travel, and, in many respects, where they will land. “Sometimes, you can travel eight miles; other times, just a few hundred yards,” she explained.
But there is a high degree of skill involved with the many nuances of this activity, from takeoff and landing to avoiding power lines to providing an enjoyable experience for passengers.“I’ve seen the weather change quickly over the course of an hour, and I’ve had some tricky landings when the wind has picked up,” she said. “Safety is always your first priority.”
She noted that a fellow balloonist recently set down in the breakdown lane of I-91 in Whately due to some type of malfunction. There were no injuries and minimal inconvenience to motorists, she noted, but the incident still resulted in some bad press that is certainly not needed at this time.
Indeed, there’s been plenty of that over the past year or so. A balloon drifted into power lines at a Virginia festival in May, resulting in a fire that killed three people. And in February 2013, 19 people were killed when a balloon crashed near Luxor, Egypt, in the deadliest ballooning disaster in history.
Fusco said she doesn’t know the cause of either mishap, but speculated that in one or both, the culprit may have been complacency, something she doesn’t allow to happen when she’s flying.
“You can’t say, ‘I’ve done this a million times before’ — you have to be methodical,” she explained. “You have to follow that mental checklist and go over everything and double-check it. I never taken any flight for granted and say, ‘we’ve taken off from here before, we’ll probably land over here, we’ve landed there before.’ You can’t take that attitude; you have to accept that every flight is going to be different and has its own set of challenges.”
With about an hour of daylight left, Fusco decides it’s time to land. After making sure she is well past some power lines, she sets the balloon down in a field maybe 100 yards behind a home on Mount Warner Street. Soon, several people who have been watching the balloon come over to greet its occupants. A couple from Texas, in town to visit their daughter at Hampshire College, say they’ve been carefully following the balloon in their car for the past half-hour. A mother and her young daughter arrive, and Fusco invites them to get a look in the basket and then help pack up the balloon. Fusco makes her way over to meet the home’s owner and ask if she can drive her pickup onto his field.
Walter Sadlowski has had a few balloons land on his property — enough to know that there’s a bottle of champagne coming his way.
After accepting it and listening to advice from Fusco to serve it very cold, he had a few words for BusinessWest.
“This is just a great thing — they can land here anytime,” he said. “It’s fun to see the look in people’s eyes and hear the excitement in their voices. To have a balloon come down in your backyard … that’s something pretty special.”
Such sentiments help explain why Fusco got into this business, and why she’s stayed in it despite its many challenges and the vagaries of the economy and weather.
While she can’t count on either one, she can rely on her balloons to provide views that people have never experienced — and moments they’ll never forget.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]