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Windermere Observer Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019 5 months ago

Up, up and away: Hamlin to host hot-air balloon festival

Get ready to take a sunset flight near Lake Hancock during Hamlin’s upcoming balloon festival.
by: Danielle Hendrix Associate Editor

It won’t be much like the house tethered to balloons in Disney’s “Up,” but in just a few days, you will be able to step into a hot-air balloon and get a bird’s-eye view of Horizon West.

The Hamlin Balloon Festival is taking place Saturday, March 2, and the views that balloon passengers will be treated to promise to be second to none — a sunset over Lake Hancock and a new perspective of Hamlin, to name a few.

Kenny Shumate, a ballon pilot of 38 years and self-proclaimed “balloonatic,” will be one of the pilots flying at the festival. He and four other experienced balloonists will bring their balloons, and Shumate said each pilot has more than 30 years of experience in the craft.

“I started here in Orlando in the early 1980s, and I just saw a balloon fly over my house one day and thought, ‘That’s kind of cool,’” Shumate said. “My neighbor said, ‘Hey, I know someone that does that. Want to go do it?’ I went out the next day to Kissimmee. The guy that I flew with the first time built his own balloon, basket and burner. I’d never seen a balloon before so I didn’t know how this stuff worked. It’s just so cool, really neat. He said, ‘You want to go for a flight?’ I hopped in his balloon, and away we went. We took off from the Kissimmee airport and landed almost to Lake Apopka.”

Shumate has logged more than 4,000 hours in the air, and he said most of the pilots at the festival Saturday have no fewer than 2,000 hours. Throughout his time as a balloonist, he has owned 57 or 58 balloons of different shapes, sizes and colors. 

“I buy them, fly them and sell them,” he said. “It’s just great. I absolutely love it. Right now, I’m down to three, I think. If a deal comes along I can’t pass up, I’ll just buy it. What usually happens is I’ll fly it, fall in love with it and then hate to see it go.

“I would take off from work five months a year and travel all up through Canada, New York, Maine, Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee,” he said. “I was doing 25 to 35 balloon events a year. I would do the ones here in Florida, because we fly here year-round — up north they shut down from October to March or April.”

Balloons undergo an inspection either annually or every 100 hours of flight time. Federal Aviation Administration inspectors come and check every panel of the nylon balloon fabric. Pilots also undergo biannual reviews. The standards are much the same as those for airplane pilots, Shumate said. Tanks are certified every few years, and every part of the balloon is checked and certified or replaced if needed on their own schedules.

For the Hamlin festival, balloons will be tethered to a vehicle setup to keep them in place. Shumate said he hopes to be able to ascend at least 80 to 90 feet in the air, depending on winds and weather. Each ride costs $20 per person. It will last about five minutes or so, and passengers will be able to take in the views of Walt Disney World, Horizon West and, of course, Hamlin.

Although the festival starts at 5:30 p.m., Shumate said he usually flies early in the morning, because the temperatures are much cooler, and winds tend to be calmer. It’s risky flying during the hottest parts of the day, because the balloons are already powered by heat.

Before they fly, pilots check the weather forecast and look at wind direction and speed. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to prepare the balloon for flight, and once in the air, they are heated every 10 to 15 seconds to keep them rising.

“If you want to fly and go higher, you give it more heat, and if you want it to come down, you don’t give it heat,” he said. “My favorite time (of year) to fly is right about now, even though we are having unusually warm weather. March and April are (on their way) in and orange blossoms are coming out. Everything is starting to come into bloom, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.

“In the open basket, you get out there and see so many things and the only control you have is up or down — that’s why we see what the wind is doing,” he said. “It’s quite amazing.”

Danielle Hendrix is the Associate Editor for the West Orange Times & Observer and the Windermere Observer. She is a 2015 graduate of the University of Central Florida, from which she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism with a minor in world comparative studies. ...

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