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Balloon with a view

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July 25, 2012 - Bill Sterner has been flying hot air balloons for more than half his life.

"I've always considered it a blessing," said Sterner, 48. "Some people go through their whole life and are lucky to do it once."

His wife, Dawn, has also been around hot air balloons most of her life. Her father was a hot air balloon pilot and that's how Dawn and Bill met. Married now for 17 years, the couple has three daughters, and are the owners of Big Sky Hot Air Balloons. They reside in Metamora, but often take off with clients in their hot air balloon from Oakwood Community Church in Brandon Township, where they are members.

"The view from a balloon is unlike anything else," said Bill, whose father was also a hot air balloon pilot and off-ered to pay for his son's lessons. Bill got his license in 1996, but mostly enjoys hot air ballooning as a sport, not as a business. He has a full-time home inspection business and is happy for his hot air balloon business to simply cover the costs of propane, insurance, and champagne.

The Sterners bought their balloon, which they named "God's Promise," in 2004. The balloon's basket, or gondola, can fit up to five people. Inflated, the balloon measures 90,000 cubic feet. Today, new entry-level balloons start at about $25,000.

On a recent warm evening, the Sterner family, which includes daughters Mandalyn, Tabitha, and Savana, showed the process for inflating and deflating a hot air balloon. To take its shape, a balloon is packed full of cold air and then the air is heated to make it fly.

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The Sterners offer only evening flights, when the wind is calmest. Flights can be taken from April to November, but the more common season is May through October and flying is completely dependent on weather conditions. No wind or only a very light breeze is required for a hot air balloon ride. More gas is burned on hot days and cool days offer better lift. Elevation is determined by wind direction, temperature and terrain and typically varies from treetop level to 2,000 feet, but he has had some flights that reached an elevation of about a mile, 5,280 feet.

"When you get up there, it's extremely quiet," said Bill.

Bill said people often mistakenly wait for an October flight for a chance to see more color on the trees. Waiting is a bad idea, however, as the weather in fall is more unpredictable.

"Every day is a good day mid-season because it's a fair weather sport," he said.

Favorable winds are 5 to 10 mph. Sun or clouds do not matter. Bill has experienced some of the most beautiful flights on overcast days.

The average distance traveled is about 7 miles. The only control he has over the balloon in flight is ascent and descent. The instrument panel has an altimeter that reads altitude, a bariometer that tells the rate of climb or descent, and a fuel pressure gauge.

Bill is never sure quite where the balloon will land, which is why the Sterners fly out in the country. They like to have a general idea of where they will land. If a north wind is blowing, they launch from somewhere other than their Metamora property, because they don't want to end up over Lake Orion. He also tries to avoid landing on golf courses, woods, lakes and in crops.

Hot air balloons fly in uncontrolled air space and the Sterners only need to give way to an airplane in distress or a hot air balloon that is flying below them.

"We are the sailboat of the sky," he said.

Bill and Dawn have participated in various hot air balloon festivals around the state, including Howell, Jackson, Midland, Battle Creek and Mason. At the festivals, they compete in various tasks, including landing in a targeted area.

The single biggest hazard while flying is wires, Bill said, but he has never had a problem. Birds avoid the hot air balloon.

"Butterflies come near, but everything else stays away," he said.

Sterner has had clients of all ages in his balloon, including, he said, "a 78-year-old gal, and her 102-year-old mother."

The eldest woman had always wanted to fly in a hot air balloon and the Sterners placed a stool in the gondola for her to sit on. Conditions had to be perfect and they traveled 3 miles. She was elated and the Sterners learned she passed away not long after her flight, having completed one of the things on her "bucket list."

Bill and Dawn have also played a key role in many marriage proposals and they've never heard a no, or even a "maybe." Dawn notes, however, that her brother is also a hot air balloon pilot and he can't say the same.

"He had a man propose to a woman one time in his balloon, and the woman told the man they would discuss it when they got down," Dawn recalls. "My brother wanted to lighten the mood, so he asked if they wanted him to step out for a minute."

While that was an awkward experience, Dawn and Bill both say most balloon rides are smooth, with no turbulence from the ride or the conversation.

"Balloons are the gentle giant," Bill said. "They are calm, quiet, and peaceful with an amazing view. When you fly low, you can touch the trees. You can't do that in an airplane."

For more information, call Big Sky Hot Air Balloons at 248-969-8885.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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