Come the first or December, visitors and locals will have chance to take a genuine hot-air, no-strings-attached, here-we-go-mother balloon ride.
Parker Ranch has made a deal with a San Diego balloonist to bring his operation to the Big Island - three balloons and experienced crew.
I have taken a half-dozen balloon rides in various parts of the country and I can attest that it is next door to getting married for thrills, chills and riding with angels.
With Hawaii's 35 mph tradewinds and limited real estate, ballooning in the state to most observers was a giant no-no, although everyone agrees it would be a great addition to our roster of visitor attractions.
The takeoff point is planned for Parker Ranch land near the Saddle Road. The landing area -- ah, yes, the landing area. When I first heard about this contemplated exercise, I estimated the landing area would be around the Johnston Island or maybe French Polynesia.
"Quite the contrary," I was assured by Frank Reed, general manager of Paradise Balloons. "Our test flights have shown that an average flight will cover three-and-a-half miles and land on the slopes of Mauna Kea. We will have 40,000 acres of clear landing area. A scenic, easy flight."
Is Parker Ranch a partner in the company?
"No, we simply have a land-lease agreement with Parker Ranch. When we were here doing test runs, we gave all the trustees a ride to show how safe the operation will be."
The present plan is for passengers to assemble at Parker Ranch Center in the middle of Waimea at 30 minutes before sunrise. They then will be transported to the takeoff point in passenger vans and assigned to one of the three balloons. Takeoff will be within an hour of sunrise. According to Reed, the best window for stable air is from sunrise until to two-and-a-half hours after sunrise.
The takeoff experience is unreal. The ground melts beneath the wicker basket of the gondola. There is a Disneyland-ish. unreal feeling as the ground gets farther and farther away. The best part of the Parker Ranch balloon tour will be looking down on peaceful cattle herds, the dramatic Kohala coastline and emerald green mountains while watching the sun rise over the 13,796-foot peak of Mauna Kea.
Reed says, "The Parker Ranch has perfect conditions for the safe operation of a balloon. The conditions are ideal with early morning winds and massive amounts of open land with no obstacle for landing. It is also one of the prettiest early-morning sites in Hawaii and one of the most conducive areas in the world for recreational balloon rides."
Isn't the wind too strong in Hawaii?
"Nope," replies Reed. "On the lee side of Mauna Kea, there is a wind shadow that results in very light winds almost every morning. Our takeoff speed is usually around 5 miles an hour, perfect for a balloon.
What about landing speed?
"Because we deal with Mother Nature there is always the remote possibility of a brisk landing, but our experienced pilots are trained to operate under such conditions."
A word of caution: Wear layered clothing. It is cold on the Saddle Road at dawn. Wear jeans and tennis shoes. You don't want to make a "brisk landing" on a lava field in a wicker basket wearing a bikini and sandals.
(Parker Ranch insurance representatives have met with counterparts from Paradise Balloons to make sure all liability situations are covered.)
At the end of the air tour, passengers will be returned to the Parker Ranch Center for brunch and champagne.
There will be three balloons, one eight-passenger balloon (cost $50,000), one 12-passenger balloon (cost $65,000) and one 16-passenger balloon (cost $80,000.) With three balloons, there has to be three chase cars to find and bring back the passengers and three trucks to carry the gondolas and the deflated balloons.
Reed expects to start with three FAA-certified pilots, a sales manager and a crew chief. In addition he anticipates hiring 15 or more local people.
The beginning investment will be $500,000.
Cost for the balloon adventure is $240 for adults and $190 for children 12 and younger. Reservations are required and are limited to 36 passengers each morning. The number to call is (800) 350-9122 any day after Dec. 1.
John McDermott writes articles for travel magazines and newspapers and is the author of several travel books. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source Citation:McDermott, John. "Up, up and away -- another Hawaii first." Pacific Business News 39.33 (Oct 26, 2001): 13(1). General OneFile. Gale. Alachua County Library District. 11 Sept. 2009
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