ENUMCLAW — Some 3,000 feet up, just after dawn on a recent morning, McKenna Secrist reached over the rim of a metal-framed wicker gondola and released a handful of popcorn to test the wind. Instead of drifting down with gravity, the little white kernels lofted up, up and away, revealing the flow of air and the descent rate of her balloon as she prepared to land.
“Every balloon flight is an adventure because you use the winds to navigate where you want to go,” she said. “In a balloon you’re also moving so slowly, and you have, like, a 360-degree-view of the world, and it really gives you perspective.”
Secrist, 21, is one of the youngest commercial hot air balloon pilots in the nation. She caught the ballooning bug early, she said, before she can even remember. She started volunteering on a support crew at age 9 and bought her own balloon at 15 with savings and some help from her parents. She got a commercial license at 18.
Longtime balloon enthusiasts hope that she is the vanguard of a new wave of interest in a sport that is threatened by the graying out of an older generation who embraced ballooning in its last big wave of growth in the 1960s and ’70s.
A new program aimed at recruiting a next generation — and one that includes more women and people who are not white — is part of those hopes in Washington state. But a deeper well of enthusiasm, balloonists say, is coming from something harder to pin down, in the uptick in interest as the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the patterns of American life.
“Every time I fly, it makes me want my own balloon,” said Cooper Dill, a high school senior who took a recent training flight with Secrist, operating the propane burners for only the second time. He and a friend, Aidan Hughes, both 17, are saving to buy a balloon together. Dill even sold his beloved pickup to raise his share of the money. Their timing is good: With many older balloonists retiring and selling off their equipment, a gently used balloon with all its components, while still expensive, can cost as little as $10,000-$20,000. (A new balloon able to carry a pilot and two to three passengers can cost $40,000 or more.)
Mandy Johnson, a longtime aeronaut and ballooning teacher in Washington, said her list of new students is bigger this summer than at any time in 25 years, with about two-thirds of them ages 20-35.
“And about half are women, which is really, really good,” Johnson said.
The physics of the sport is pretty simple: If the air inside a balloon — envelope is the term of art — is heated to 100 degrees warmer than the air outside it, the sphere will rise; at less than 100 degrees’ difference, it will descend, with some variation, depending on the outside temperature, the total weight and size of the balloon, and the number of passengers.
Propane tanks in the gondola make the air hotter; ropes connected to the balloon’s top, or parachute valve, let hot air out to allow descent. Envelopes come in different sizes, but a big one might stand 10 stories tall when inflated, with 3,000 square yards of nylon fabric and 9 miles of thread needed to stitch together the hundreds of panels.
When he is not in the air, Eliav Cohen, chief pilot of Seattle Ballooning — which also employs Secrist as a pilot — runs a tech company. He is considered one of the leaders in the country in trying to inject new blood into the sport. He started a program this year to enlist young people and got the attention of Amazon Studios, which in 2019 released “The Aeronauts,” a movie about the early days of ballooning. The company saw an opportunity for promotion and gave Cohen’s group a replica of “The Mammoth,” the balloon featured in the film, for use by students. He is now working with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and King County around Seattle to recruit more students from diverse economic and racial backgrounds.
There is already a distinct feminist thread that runs through ballooning history in the Pacific Northwest. Pioneers like Luana Sever, a textile artist who opened one of the first balloon repair companies, and Gladys Dawson Buroker, a barnstorming pilot, motorcyclist, wing-walker and parachutist, inspired a generation of other female balloonists after them. Ginger Kelly, 88, one of the first licensed female balloon pilots in the nation, considers Buroker a mentor.
“She wore this little hairnet, and she didn’t look like she could do anything,” Kelly said of her old teacher. “But she could do everything.”
In the Seattle area, air currents are dictated by the horizon-dominating mass of Mount Rainier. In the evening, low-altitude air flows toward Rainier from miles away, pulling balloons along a river that is generally dependable. In the morning, as the sun heats the Cascade Range, cool air flows down and away from the mountain. (The Albuquerque Box in New Mexico is another famous wind anomaly.) But the generalization holds true wherever you are: If you can master the invisible map of air currents, knowing whether to go up or down to catch a prevailing flow, you can, more or less, predict your course.
But perhaps the greatest charm of ballooning is that you cannot always be sure. Because the air is different every day, you never know with certainty where you will be able to land. So, as part of his preparation for flights, Cohen knocks on doors all across his corner of rural Washington about an hour south of Seattle, asking whether — should the need arise — the property owner would mind terribly seeing a beautiful balloon land out in the field. Most people, he said, are happy to oblige.
Working as a crew member for a balloon flight — helping to launch and then following along with a truck and trailer to wherever touchdown happens to occur — is its own adventure. Aidan Hughes experienced it firsthand as Secrist’s flight was nearing its end.
Calm winds called for a sooner-than-expected landing, which left Hughes sprinting down a couple of driveways to ask for permission to land from the people who lived there.
“Your next right, right there,” Secrist directed him over the radio, her balloon drifting by overhead. “If you could get in and ask permission, that would be awesome,” she said. Hughes succeeded; the owner said yes; the flight came down.
“Some people in the world are grumpy, but how can you be mad at a hot-air balloon?” Secrist said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.