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O#33: Greenfield, Massachusetts
OJuly 22, 2007


The Pioneer Valley runs north-south through the Western part of Massachusetts. It's the Massachusetts portion of the Connecticut River Valley, which follows New England's largest river from its source in New Hampshire, down through Massachusetts, and across Connecticut to Long Island Sound. The Pioneer Valley passes through three Massachusetts counties, the northernmost of which is Franklin County -- "the most rural county of Massachusetts", according to Wikipedia.


In 2007 I was invited to fly in at the Green River Festival in Franklin County, in the town of Greenfield. The event had started many years before as a hot-air balloon festival, but after noticing that New England weather was not very reliable for ballooning, the Chamber of Commerce decided to diversify with musical entertainment. By 2007 the event was "a music festival with balloons". It takes place on the campus of Greenfield Community College on the outskirts of town.


Paul Sena, the balloonmeister of the event, was responsible for bringing me to the festival. I'd first met Paul a few years before at a balloon festival in Colorado. Paul lives around 40 miles away in Worthington, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. I'm told it's a scenic area, but very heavily wooded even by western Massachusetts standards, which is saying a lot. Paul somehow manages to run a hot-air balloon ride business there. I'm not sure how that works, exactly, except that he likes to fly when the upper winds are fast -- fast enough to take him somewhere where there might actually be some open fields to put down in.


The area around Greenfield was not quite as challenging at Paul's home turf. If you flew south down the Pioneer Valley valley from Greenfield, you'd have a reasonable selection of farms and fields to land in, and the further south you went, the broader the valley became -- "like Kansas," Paul told the other balloonists, having evidently seen a part of Kansas that was 70% wooded. However if you went out of the main valley on either side, there was nothing but trees. In that event, Paul's advice was to get down low into the outlying valleys, and there would be a road, or a town -- or something. Eventually. It takes a certain amount of optimism to fly balloons in Massachusetts.


I was ready on Friday afternoon, but it was too windy for anyone to fly. Saturday morning conditions were good, but I did not fly, hoping for the sake of my sponsors to be able to go in the afternoon, when the crowd at the festival was much larger. However, in the afternoon, the winds died down too late for me to do my inflation, although the hot-air balloons were later able to fly. So I drove back and forth from the Hampton Inn to the college many times, and listened to some of the musical groups performances and ate various overpriced food items from the vendors. Sunday morning was my last shot.


I arrive out at the college at about 4:00 AM on Sunday and began laying out my equipment in the dark. A young man driving the campus security car dropped by to say hello. At 4:30, the appointed time, the crew volunteers began to show up. I use the term "volunteers" loosely, since these were people Paul had procured by announcing at the previous evening's balloon pilot's briefing that each hot-air balloon was to send one of their crew out to help me at 4:30 AM. All things considered, everyone was very gracious about this, and a fair number did show up. We began inflating the balloons.



When the sun rose, the field was covered in mist.



I got into my harness and got ready to go. Ernie Hartt, one of my regular crew chiefs, was originally scheduled to join me in Massachusetts, but ended up not going at the last minute, due to a personal emergency. Therefore, I had a kind of crew chief committee consisting of Tim and Linda Taylor, who were Paul Sena's crew; Gary and Carol Weed, balloon crewpeople who had helped me with several previous cluster balloon flights; Peter Kagey, a student balloon pilot; Jeff and Christine Ratcliffe, who normally crewed on the RE/MAX balloon; and Bev and Al Theodore, balloon crewpeople who I knew from Connecticut.


Crew committee watches the pibal

Putting up pibals (small helium balloons used to test wind direction and speed) it looked like the direction was marginally OK. The wind would take us south along the western edge of the valley, and as long as nothing changed, we would fly down to where the valley widens out, and put down in "Kansas". However, if the wind took us a bit more to the west, we'd be out in the trees.



I clowned around for a bit with the Merriam-Graves truck (Merriam-Graves Corporation: a leading supplier of specialty gases in the Northeast, and the donor of my all helium). The hot-air balloons began to inflate.




I had crew release me, and up I floated into the skies of Massachusetts.