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Up, up and away

Michael Ranieri spent two decades in the corporate world before he decided to leave it all behind, to waft along on the breeze as a hot-air balloon pilot.

He does not regret his decision.

Ranieri, who originates nearly all of his flights at the Columbia County Airport on the outskirts of Hudson, was once a 'workaholic,' putting in 16 hour days with United Parcel Service, including two-year stints in Kingston, Hudson and Poughkeepsie. 'I was one of those people who just worked, worked, worked,' he said. Then he attended a balloon festival in Greenville, where he took a pleasure flight. That was in 1999. Two years later he earned his FFA certification as a commercial hot-air balloon pilot, which allowed him to open his business, Catskill Mountain Balloon.

Ranieri, who lives in Oneonta, sells commercial real estate as a sideline, but most of his effort goes toward ballooning. Along with the glory of floating on air, he enjoys its social aspects. 'It's not a negative job,' he said, 'because anybody who's going for a balloon flight is in a good mood.' For instance, among five customers who lifted off with him last Sunday morning was a woman from Connecticut who was celebrating her birthday with her husband and 17-year-old son. Ranieri has found that people from all walks of life sign up for the adventure, everyone from heads of corporations to wedding celebrants to people with terminal illness who want to fulfill one of their final wishes.

Along with the job's social aspect, Ranieri also finds the typically early hours appealing.'Yes. Definitely,' he said. 'You've got to be a morning person.'Later in the day is not a good time to fly, he said, because the heat from the sun creates thermals that cause turbulent winds. Evening ascensions are safe at certain times of the year, Ranieri said, but generally mornings are best. Liftoff these days is 7 a.m. That means Ranieri is on-site shortly after 6 a.m. like he was last Sunday, along with his assistant, Alissa Steyer of Saugerties. Students at Kingston High School know her as an earth-science teacher, but she is also a private hot-air balloon pilot.

The deflated balloon Ranieri and Steyer laid out on the airport's tarmac Sunday is one of two stored in a hangar there. They unfolded and pulled its length along the roadway, then Ranieri forced cold air into it with a fan, followed by hot air heated with a burner that produces a huge flame. Steyer, at the crown, gradually walked the balloon up to its correct position, with wicker basket finally sitting upright on its base. It's 90-feet-by-35-feet presence in striped primary colors could not be missed.

That became truer as daylight emerged, providing an unmistakable marker for out-of-town passengers, who arrived several minutes before take-off. Each stepped into the basket as other personnel leaned on its brim hugging it to the earth until Ranieri gave the command to release. Then, quietly, the balloon lifted, delivering pilot and passengers to an adventure above fall foliage resplendent in brilliance awakened by the rising sun.

Alan Leibowitz, whose wife, Rhonda, was celebrating her birthday along with their son Adam said the experience was worth the nearly two-hour early-morning trip.'Oh, we had a great time,' he said later by phone. 'It was smooth ... It's such a beautiful area, especially at this time of year.'The wind was brisk enough to sometimes allow the basket to slightly brush against tree leaves, he said, providing an incredible view. 'You would never get that view anywhere (else),' Ranieri said. 'Planes can't fly that low ... And as the sun's heating the ground, you're smelling the pine, you're smelling the hay, corn. It's an hour of quiet time up there. The only time it's noisy is when the burner (is in use) to keep the balloon afloat.'Ranieri introduced his basket-mates to the terrain as well as the workings of his balloon and what to anticipate while in flight. He also gave instructions for knee-bending techniques and other preparations for landing in a mock touch-down.'He came highly recommended,' said Leibowitz, who does environmental work for ITT in New York City. 'We felt very safe, very comfortable with him.'The landing, about an hour after take-off, was in an open field. The day before, Ranieri said he touched down at a camp in Elizaville where people were eating breakfast and drinking coffee.

Unlike lift-off, places to descend greatly depend upon the whims of the wind. There are no 'red zones' or locations in which landing is prohibited in the area, Ranieri said, but he nevertheless respects the rights of land-owners. He makes it his business, for instance, to recognize and know the growing season of crops like alfalfa, corn, hay and soy beans, so he can avoid landing on that acreage and partially destroying the farmer's livelihood.

Just as Ranieri enjoys the sociability of folks during excursions in the sky, he finds people at landings tend to be affable, too. In fact, they often join with passengers and crew in a celebratory toast of champagne or a non-alcoholic sparkling beverage. More often than not, when no one is home at the landing site, Ranieri said he will leave a bottle of champagne at the door as a thank you.

The balloon chase vehicle, Ranieri's black F-350 Super Duty Ford truck, helps to pick up passengers and return them to the airport. Sometimes people who spot the balloon come over to help re-pack, he said. Sometimes, he said, they return as customers.

Of the untold number of people Ranieri has piloted through the skies above Columbia County, among the most memorable, he said, was a 94-year-old woman and her children, themselves in their 70s. The 'kids' wanted Ranieri to find a 'perfect' flight day, he said. That turned out to be mid-December. Flying conditions were prime, but the temperature was below zero. Their mother was bundled up in a snow-mobile suit, and her children were warmly clothed as well. They went up, snapped pictures, laughed and took delight in the scenery. 'We had just a beautiful flight,' Ranieri said, 'and she was ecstatic. They all acted like kids.'Typical flying time is May through mid-November, he said, but any time of year will work as long as conditions are right. That includes wind speed. Sunday morning's was 3 knots. Seven to 10, Ranieri said, is 'not good.'He keeps closely in touch with the weather service, he said, providing the 'N' number from his certified aircraft. The service, he said, also gives the hourly temperature and dew point. When the two are equal, he said, that means fog, another component that will nix a flight. It's a part of his job that requires constant juggling, listening, determining and calling of clients to let them know the best possibilities for flight.

Ranieri acknowledged a recent spate of hot-air balloon accidents, including the death of a pilot at an October balloon festival in Albuquerque. It was a windy day, he said, at the gathering in New Mexico. The pilot hit power lines, according to reports, and died after jumping from the craft along with another pilot who survived injuries. Poor decisions by pilots cause most accidents, Ranieri said.

The toughest situation he has encountered as pilot, he said, was a landing in which wind scooped up material of the deflating balloon much like a sail, causing the basket to tip and people to crowd into each other as it skimmed along a few yards. 'I've had no accidents or injuries (but) some bruises or bumps,' he said, 'when you hit the ground and someone lunges forward a little bit and bruises their knee.'He's also never had a passenger, who once in the balloon basket, wanted to get out, he said, a fact he gladly shares with the skittish. Ranieri himself once thought he had a fear of heights. 'Really, it's the fear of falling or the motion,' he said, 'which, in a balloon there is no motion because you're in the wind.'Ranieri works with others who share that airspace, including sub-contractor pilots Russ Barber, who taught him to fly, and Alan and Becky Jones and Glenn Horton. His business also entails working festivals and keeping up his Web site and equipment, including his $25,000 balloon, which receives a yearly FAA inspection.

The quiet time of year for his business is approaching. He knows that as December nears reservations for flights will likely stall, unlike his desire to rise with his balloon into the sky.

Ranieri said he is glad he switched from the 'rat race' to the 'friendly skies'.''If you don't fly for a week or so,' he said, 'you get the itch."

Reprinted courtesy of the Daily Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

November 20, 2008

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