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Up, up and away in Raya's beautiful balloon

The family that balloons together, stays together. Meet the Rayas – (clockwise from center) Shawn, Sandra, Ashley, Audrianna and Joshua. Photo provided. (click for larger version)
July 13, 2011 - Most folks with a severe fear of heights won't climb a ladder much less go for a ride in a hot air balloon with nothing between them and the ground but a large basket made of woven wicker or rattan.

But balloonist Shawn Raya, who admitted to being "deathly afraid of heights," said it's really no big deal.

"On a building or a ladder, you can follow the edge all the way down to the ground, which gives you your depth perception," explained the 38-year-old Oxford resident. "In a balloon, the basket ends at your feet, so you have no depth perception. You know you're high, but you visually can't see it. It's as safe as can be."

Raya's been riding in and piloting hot air balloons since he was just a kid growing up in the Shelby Township/Utica area.

"I've been in the sport since 1983," he said. "I grew up with it. My dad (John Raya) taught me how to fly."

At the age of 14, Raya received his student pilot license. At 16, he earned his private pilot licence. When he turned 18, he received his commercial pilot license.

"All three are the youngest ages you can receive each of those licenses," he noted.

In the 24 years since obtaining his student pilot license, Raya has now logged nearly 1,700 hours in the air.

Raya's licenses are all rated for "lighter than air" craft, meaning he can't fly an airplane or a helicopter.

But that's just fine with him because his true aerial love is the hot air balloon.

"Ballooning takes you away from the world's problems," Raya said. "Once you're up in the air, it's just you and Mother Nature. It's very beautiful, very surreal. There's nothing like it."

"In an airplane or a helicopter, you have the noise of the rotors or the wind rushing by," he noted. "In a balloon, it's like you're standing on the ground, watching the earth turn below you with the occasional roar of the burner."

Raya owns two balloons, a 90,000-cubic-foot one bearing the Troy-based Father & Son Construction logo and a 65,000-cubic-foot balloon he uses for competitions.

For those thinking about it as a hobby, ballooning is definitely not an inexpensive diversion.

The average used balloon can be purchased for under $10,000 whereas the competitive balloon Raya owns can be obtained for under $25,000.

Raya can also be seen flying a balloon bearing the Re/Max logo. He doesn't own it, but he does pilot it to advertise for the real estate company.

"Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, people were getting out (of balloon advertising) because they feared the liability," Raya said. "You're seeing more and more advertising balloons coming out now. When the economy turns around, hopefully, somebody will approach me for advertising."

Raya spent 20 years piloting hot air balloons for the Oxford-based Sky Adventures, a company that offers pleasure rides over northern Oakland and southern Lapeer counties to paying customers.

While pleasure rides are fun, Raya really enjoys competing in balloon events.

"On the weekends, I'm generally out at balloon events," he said. "Over the years, I've competed in over 100 different balloon events."

During the last two years, he averaged 12-13 competitions per year. Raya said "90 percent" of the competitions take place in Michigan, however, he does travel to other states such as Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Texas.

These events are not about racing from Point A to Point B; they're about demonstrating skill and precision.

"Competition is all about accuracy," Raya explained. "You go out about 3-5 miles, then you fly into a field in the center of which is an X and you try to place a marker as close to the center of the X as possible."

There are various ways, called "tasks," for balloonists to demonstrate their accuracy during a competition

"It all depends on which task is called from what we call the 'balloonmeister' at the event," Raya said. "They like to challenge you. There's about 20 different tasks that can be called. Typically, one flight, you fly two or three tasks. Last weekend, I was in Battle Creek and they called a five-part task. I was up (in the air) for three hours."

Raya is definitely a force to be reckoned with as he's won the Michigan State Championship in ballooning twice – officially in 2008 and unofficially this year.

He's also qualified for the U.S. Nationals annually for the last seven or eight consecutive years. In order to qualify, a balloonist must rank in the top 50 nationally.

Currently, he's ranked first in the country based on accumulated points from competitions and will head back to the U.S. Nationals in Battle Creek at the end of August.

Last year, he finished 16th in the nationals.

"Hopefully, this year I'll do a lot better," Raya said.

Although he enjoys competing, the best part of ballooning for Raya is the involvement of his entire family.

"It's a family sport," he said.

Raya's wife of 12 years, Sandra, serves as the chase crew, the mission of which is to follow the balloon from the ground and try to be at the landing site before it gets there in case assistance is needed.

Joshua, Raya's 8-year-old son, enjoys helping his dad pilot the balloon. "He's been up over 30 times," he said. "He already likes to tell dad what to do."

Raya's daughters, Audrianna, 6, and Ashley, 4, have each been up in the balloon three or four times.

For Raya, it's all about "carrying on that tradition that started with my dad" along with "sharing and spending a lot of time with my kids in the summer doing what we love."

"If my family didn't do it, I wouldn't be in the sport," he said.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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