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Margie Long is the owner of Arizona-based Hot Air Expeditions, the nation's largest hot-air balloon tour operation. She views ballooning as "the biggest stress-buster" because "you get so absorbed in being up in the sky and being away from everything." The rides cost $183 for adults and $133 for children, and each basket can hold up to 14 people. Long observes that even people who are afraid of heights feel comfortable while ballooning. Kim Young, the company's Federal Aviation Administration-licensed mechanic and repairman, says many tourists enjoy seeing the desert via hot-air balloon. Passengers who fly to the Cave Creek area can see such things as the mountains of Mazatzal, McDowell, and White Tank as well as Lake Pleasant, Weavers Needle, and downtown Phoenix. Riders can also see the San Francisco Peaks located more than 100 miles to the north. When selecting a launching site, crews frequently use a helium-filled toy balloon and other instruments to help them estimate wind speed and direction. Flight times generally last an hour depending on wind conditions. "It's up to Mother Nature. We don't have a steering wheel onboard," asserts Hot Air's chief pilot, Patrick Stevens. Balloons can go up more than a mile, allowing passengers to see small airplanes passing below them.

January 30, 2009

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