Raleigh is a dynamic city, and Im almost always surprised at what I find. Its got a wide array of interesting artists, writers, actors, entrepreneurs, events and basically any other thing you can imagine.
But I never thought Id be able to find a company that could take me flying in a hot air balloon. Then I learned about Above & Beyond Hot Air Balloon Company. And to my surprise, I found out that it has been around since 1988.
Its the loving creation of Tom Tomasetti.
He was working for Nortel in the late 80s when he got laid off.
When youre 40 years old and non-degreed, its hard to find a job, he said. So, I decided that no other person was going to determine whether or not I could put food on my table. It was going to be my choice.
That was 1988. He went out, bought a balloon and started his company. Now, thats not as crazy as it sounds. Hed been interested in ballooning for years and had been a member of different ground chase crews. He just decided to take what he loved and turn it into his profession.
I joined Tomasetti and his team one beautiful Friday evening. Id been trying to get together with them for weeks, but weather often waves the fickle fingers of fate when it comes to ballooning.
If its not safe, you dont fly, Tomasetti said.
Unfortunately, the consequences can be deleterious for his wallet.
Sometimes there are lean weeks. And lean months. Sometimes you get to fly a lot, he said. Its ballooning. You just have to make the right call.
His rides are expensive $260 a person or $520 a couple but that cost doesnt make up for the days he cant operate. He manages to make a living, but if the wind isnt blowing right or the sky looks threatening, no amount of money will force him to fly.
I hopped into the chase van at a North Raleigh hotel, where the ground crew met with Tomasetti. His van was large enough for the six of us and had a platform attached to the back where the balloon basket sat.
The ground crew was made up of Tomasettis old friends. They go with him on these trips sometimes, to help him load, unload and set up the balloon, and then chase it when its flying through the air. They get paid with tips, refreshments and occasional free rides.
Tom Kuehl came with his 10-year-old son, Harrison. The eyes of the young can be a valuable tool in ballooning.
Hes an excellent spotter for all of us when hes in the van, Kuehl said of his son. Cause hes always looking where the balloon is, and he finds it faster than us.
Harrison has been chasing since one Sunday in 2009, his dad told me.
Me and Harrison were going to get a pizza for dinner. And I saw Toms balloon up in the air, Kuehl said. I said, I know that person. Were going to go follow that balloon.
And so they did. It only takes one such experience to make a person fall in love.
We drove out to the country away from Raleigh and met the clients in the empty back lot of a school. We took our time preparing the basket, attaching the balloon and filling it up, and then Tomasetti and his clients went off into the blue sky.
Theres not much actual steering involved in ballooning. You pretty much depend on the winds. For a while, Tomasetti just hung in the air above us, going higher and higher until he was just a speck. And then the wind started blowing, we closed the van doors, and the chase was on.
Barbara Witt has been doing this with Tom for about 15 years now. She got started mostly because she was bored.
I met Tom in a bar one day, she said. When he said I had too much free time, I should join his chase crew, I said, well that might be fun.
She drove as we chased the balloon around town
April Person was our navigator. She first got interested in ballooning when she was 17 and went to a balloon show in Burlington. An announcement was made that volunteers were wanted to join ground crews. Person asked her parents, and they said OK.
I ran off and crewed for my very first time, she said. And here I am.
She consulted a map while Harrison, Tom and I kept our eyes peeled. The five of us together managed to make sure Tomasetti didnt get lost, and at the end of the night, we helped him load all the gear back in the van.
Have you ever dealt with people that you would have to characterize as jerks? Tomasetti asked me after I questioned him on the attraction of ballooning. What I found over the years, jerks dont get into ballooning. Its not in their nature. We get only fun people.
That was certainly true of Tomasetti and his crew. They made me feel welcome, and in the process, taught me some of the thrill involved in ballooning. I didnt get to go up in the air, but my experience as part of the crew was just as much fun.