States_of_Enlightenment.gif (4364 bytes)
#46: Union Bridge, Maryland
May 21, 2011

Flying into Baltimore-Washington or National airports, you'd think that Maryland would be a wonderful place for ballooning: rolling countryside patchworked in green and brown, bordered by rows and clumps of trees, dotted here and there with houses and farm buildings.



However, ballooning (or perhaps anything to do with individual freedom) becomes more difficult in direct proportion to your proximity to Washington D. C. The SFRA, the special airpace that surrounds Baltimore and Washington, covers much of the western part of the state. Entering the SFRA requires a transponder, which most balloons don't have, and in the case of an ultralight aircraft, requires special permission from the FAA, which they are unwilling to grant. Absent such equipment and permissions... Air Force jets are scrambled and a national security incident ensues.


So Maryland remained on my list of states not yet flown in for many years. Every year I would talk to Ron Broderick, who runs the state's only balloon festival, in conjunction with the Preakness in the spring; and every year he would tell me that the FAA would not let me fly due to the proximity of the SFRA, and furthermore was allowing the regular hot-air balloons to fly only with the gravest reservations, which involved sending five FAA insepctors to monitor 15 balloons against... whatever evil they should suddenly decide to do.

Finally, in 2011, Ron helped put me in touch with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, AOPA, which was holding an International Learn to Fly Day event at the airport in Frederick, Maryland. This event would take place on Saturday, May 21. Ron's balloon festival was scheduled to conclude with a morning flight that day, and I would be flying in the afternoon, so interested hot-air balloonists could join me there. The location was about 7 miles north of the Washington SFRA airspace, which was a reasonable distance for a short flight, even if I was unlucky enough to head straight toward it.

Unfortunately, in an attempt to help me out, the AOPA filed with the FAA for a waiver that would make it legal for me to operate over the city of Frederick, should the wind be from the east. Not only did the FAA not grant the waiver, they sent a letter expressing the gravest reservations about whether I could safely operate from the Frederick airport at all.


Sensing that proceeding against such friendly advice was likely to end badly, with a little over a week before my flight, I began searching for an alternative to the Frederick airport. I was motivated by the fact that all my equipment was in Maryland, I had airline reservations to Maryland, and I had committed to buy roughly half the helium in Maryland.

Luckily, some local ultralight pilots referred me to the Flying H Farm. This was an actual farm with a grass airstrip where many of them flew. It was located to the northeast of Frederick, a bit further from the SFRA and well away from the city. I called F. E. 'John' Harrison, the owner of the farm, and described my situation. As I spoke I became a bit self-conscious, aware of how bizarre I must sound, but no sooner had I mumbled to a halt than he said "Sure you can do that here!"


As it turned out, John was a man of many unusual interests. He let me use the barn where his tractor collection was usually housed to store the helium tanks and set up for inflating the balloons.



The weather forecast for Saturday afternoon was excellent. Gary and Carol Weed, my crew chiefs, came up from the Preakness balloon festival that had ended that morning, along with Dick and Mary Beth Young and their crew. Patrick Smith and a number of people from AOPA also came up after the Learn to Fly Day event at Frederick airport ended at 3 PM. At around 4 PM we began inflating the balloons in John Harrison's barn.