Up, up, and away! Come along for Glory’s hot air balloon ‘christening’

I might have been nervous if I had known I would lift off with Heaven Sent’s pilot-in-command Jason Jones for Cameron’s first-ever Hot Air Affair event. Having signed on simply to work as ground crew and told at the very last second, “Hop in!” I felt as calm as the gorgeous June weather. “You’ll be able to tell your friends you were in a wicker basket at 1,500 feet,” Jason said.

Jason’s balloon was one of the only two taking off for the evening’s test flight, which started just before sunset when he sent up a test balloon called a piball—short for “pilot ball”—full of helium. The slight prevailing winds were from the north, which dictated our southward flight path. Finding the ideal launch location to be the Crossroads Church on the north side of town, the crew assembled on the grassy lawn with the gracious permission of the pastor.

Once hundreds of pounds of equipment were unloaded, I donned leather gloves and grasped suspension cables to expand the envelope along with more experienced balloon crew members, which included Christel Gollnick, team leader of The Clinton County Initiative economic development group and a licensed balloon pilot in her own right. I was the only novice, but they were glad to show me the ropes, literally. Christel and Jason directed a large fan
toward the skirt in the balloon’s fabric to begin inflation.

After the envelope took its iconic lightbulb shape, Jason lit the propane burner, and Heaven Sent was ready for lift-off. Heeding the completely unexpected invitation to board—I had been told no passengers were permitted and I was okay with that—I threw my leg over the waist-high gondola without hesitation, and we were up and away.

Silent, save for the occasional burst of flame from the propane burner, our airborne journey to the southwest took us over older, established neighborhoods arranged in grids. Looking down through the canopy of trees, I spotted grain silos, pools, stadiums, parks, and other landmarks. On the western horizon, we saw the city airport, the site of the upcoming weekend’s fundraising event for the preservation of downtown Cameron’s historic buildings. Jason pointed to The Old School, a century-old former public school building that these days houses The Historical Preservation Society of Cameron, the host of the Hot Air Affair. We could see the tops of the buildings
lining Third Street between Walnut and Chestnut that the Hot Air Affair hoped to help save with its high-flying efforts.

Jason, who served on his first chase crew at age 5, piloted our vessel toward an ideal landing spot in front of the Cameron Veterans Home. He told me to begin listening for voices from below as we began to descend. Sure enough, the calls of backyard spectators became audible. Kids on bikes and townsfolk in cars followed our flight path. An orderly wheeled a curious veteran out to the VA parking lot for a look at the drop-in visitors. The chase truck and balloon crew awaited our landing.

After all the onlookers had gone home but were still elated by our flawless landing, we deflated Heaven Sent, reversing our steps from less than an hour earlier, and packed her away. Jason then honored me with the rite of passage for all beginning balloonists by reciting The Balloonist Prayer: “May the winds welcome you with softness. May the sun bless you with its warm hands. And set you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.” Then he shared the tradition of balloonists in eighteenth-century France, who presented frightened farmers with a bottle of chilled champagne as a goodwill gesture to keep suspicious landowners from mistaking them for demons and stoning them.

In the absence of champagne, Jason poured a bottle of truck-temperature water over my head, christening me into their fold. Thankful for our safe flight, I was in heaven—glad not to be so in actuality yet, mind you, but grateful to have been lifted by Heaven Sent and returned safely to the ground to be initiated as a fellow crew member.

The weekend’s inaugural event featured scheduled balloon flights and an evening balloon glow. Thousands of spectators flocked to the Hot Air Affair that organizers hope will become an annual summer event in Cameron to help restore and preserve the buildings of its historic past.

You can find this story in our September 2022 magazine issue. Subscribe to our Missouri Life magazine today by clicking here.