Slide Show: Click the image or use the arrows to see more photographs.
Paul Fifield, owner and operator of Kalispell-based Fantasy Flights, says many balloon pilots are wary of heights.
“If you have me up on my roof, I’m not a real happy camper, but put me in a balloon and take me to 10,000 feet, I’m as happy as a clam,” he said.
Although some might have reservations about traveling inside a wicker basket suspended from a nylon balloon, Fifield calls the experience “magical” and “safe.”
“What a lot of people don’t understand about balloon flight is that it’s stable, very smooth and very different from standing on a roof or a ladder,” he said. “Those people who do get into the basket and are afraid of heights, 99.9 percent of them find out their fears are unfounded.”
As the sole balloon pilot navigating the Flathead Valley, Fifield has offered passengers one-of-a-kind views of the area’s spectacular terrain since 1996. Yet as his wife, Marlene, the company’s crew chief notes, the business’ operations are often “up in the air.”
Although Fantasy Flight’s ballooning season lasts from May through October, Fifield says “both ends are pretty open to not happening” as they are entirely weather dependent.
“We’ve seen Mays where it’s 80 degrees out and other Mays where it’s rainy and crummy and miserable,” he said. “If we get flights up in May and June, that’s kind of a bonus.”
Therefore, the season often doesn’t start in earnest until after the Fourth of July, when the warm weather holds.
Each balloon ride with Fantasy Flights begins with an early morning departure. Two ideal times exist for ballooning: in the morning at sunrise or about two hours before sunset.
“At those two times of day, the air is the most stable, so you won’t see balloons flying at noon,” Fifield said. “We want to get down on the ground before thermal activity begins.”
Although Fantasy Flights also used to operate evening flights, Fifield says the valley’s weather system has changed in recent years, preventing most dusk flights from happening.
“The wind was just too strong,” he said. “We’d launch the next morning and it would be fine.”
The evening before a flight, Fifield watches the evening news before calling Flight Services, an aviation weather forecasting service, where a briefer tells him predictions of upper level wind speeds and directions.
“From that I can get a rough idea of if the next morning is going to be appropriate for ballooning, but not always,” he said. “Sometimes it looks fine and I wake up the morning of the flight, get another update and it can be totally different from what they gave me the night before.”
Fifield says the final decision is sometimes determined on the launch field.
“We disappoint a lot of passengers by getting them out there at 5:30 in the morning and then send them home, but I’d rather disappoint them than take them up there and have someone get hurt,” he said.
Provided the weather conditions are favorable, Fifield conducts a pre-flight briefing in a field near the National Guard Armory and everyone starts assembling the balloon. For many customers it’s a return to concepts they may not have studied since grade school science class.
The balloon, or the envelope, as it is known to balloon enthusiasts, is spread out on the ground in preparation for the hot inflation. Fifield uses a 30-inch gas-powered fan to blow air into the envelope. After it’s been filled, the burners are lit. As hot air is more buoyant than cold air, the envelope starts to rise, causing the balloon to stand.
No two flights paths are ever the same. Once aloft, the course of the journey is up to the winds. Although he can change elevation to find a wind traveling in another direction, Fifield calls the winds “very fickle.”
Flight time lasts around one hour, depending on the availability of a good landing place. Fifield, who says that all his landings are “interesting,” says that while he’s landed before in Depot Park and in cul-de-sacs, his preferred landing pads are fields.
“We usually try to find pastures or cut hay fields and we stay out of actively growing crops,” he said. “Most often, because of the winds, I can’t say we’re going to land over in field X, which makes it hard to ask for permission, but most landowners are fine with it.”
Balloons have fascinated Fifield for years. His first exposure came when he spotted a balloon festival the 1970s when he was on his way to work in Bloomington, Minn.
“I went over to look at it and had a hard time tearing myself away from it,” he said. “I kept looking at my watch, knowing that I had to be at work, but I really wanted to be there.”
Despite his interest being thoroughly piqued, it wasn’t until his 40th birthday in 1992 that Fifield took his first ride.
“[My wife] knew I loved balloons and had always wanted to take a flight, so she booked a flight for my birthday,” he said. “Once we took that flight, both of us got hooked and decided we needed to do it more.”
Fifield contacted the pilot the next day and asked if he could crew for him in exchange for some more time in the air.
Soon after, he began training for his license and when he finished in 1994, he bought the balloon he took his first flight in. Fifield earned his commercial pilot’s license a year later and in April of 1996, Fifield and his wife decided to start Fantasy Flights.
When they began offering flights, two other balloon companies operated in the valley. But while the other business owners soon moved to warmer locales with more stable weather conditions, the Fifields have stayed put.
“We’re loving it here and don’t want to move,” Fifield said. “We love sharing the beauty of this valley with our passengers.”
For more information about Fantasy Flights, visit http://www.fantasyflights.com/index.htm or call (406) 755-4172.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.