HOWELL (AP) — Landing a 62-foot hot-air balloon at a gas station off M-59?
Denny McGuire has been there, done that.
The Livingston County Spencer J. Hardy Airport instructor has taken an estimated 300 hot-air balloon flights in his 10 years as a balloon pilot, with a 30-year background as a flight teacher.
“Once the wheels take off the ground, it doesn’t matter what it costs,” he told the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus.
“Maybe it’s the freedom, maybe it’s the control, or maybe it’s the challenge.”
The Oceola Township resident is one of 40 balloon pilots crossing their fingers for ideal flight conditions Friday through Sunday during the 29th annual Michigan Challenge Balloonfest. Those conditions would entail winds less than 10 knots, no thunderstorms within 100 miles of the event and a 3,000- to 4,000-foot ceiling, according to McGuire.
A chance of rain could hinder any launches, however. The rain could continue into the weekend, according a National Weather Service forecast.
Even if weather takes a turn for the better and pilots are taking off “left and right,” McGuire said he won’t take off unless he’s comfortable with the safety conditions, something he also emphasizes with students.
“A lot of people think it looks like a toy,” he said.
It’s not like a pilot can just go out to a hardware store and fix up his or her balloon using any old parts. Pilots are limited to the type of parts that can be used in their balloons by the Federal Aviation Administration, and aircraft have to be inspected every 100 hours or once per year to comply with FAA standards.
The Balloonfest attracts some of the best pilots in the world, some traveling from Missouri and Tennessee. Pilots compete not based on speed, but how well they can use wind currents and altitude to steer their balloons to specific targets.
“For me, competition may be second to making sure it’s a safe flight,” McGuire said. “We’re not there to get 500 prizes. We’re there to be safe and have fun and see the Ferris wheel and shout out to the crowd.”
Once in the air, McGuire’s $30,000 aircraft is at the mercy of winds, giving him little steering ability — only by finding an altitude where the wind is moving in a different direction can he control direction. It’s all a part of the excitement, he said.
His flights typically take off from his 30-acre property, landing him within up to 10 miles of home. It’s allowed him to meet hundreds of people he wouldn’t otherwise meet, who are often eager to pick his brain.
He keeps a journal including each address where he’s landed, but a flight a few years ago stands out.
McGuire and two crew members took off from Howell High School two hours before sunset, but the wind slowed down once they got in the air. Instead of taking the balloon several miles away, it took two hours for the aircraft to travel less than two miles, landing at a Mobil gas station off M-59.
“It’s a little unnerving when using your fuel,” he said. “You’ve got to land before sunset.”
FAA regulations require aircraft to use navigation lights when traveling after sunset, plus pilots and crew members are no longer able to watch out for power lines, he explained.
Luckily, the lack of wind played in McGuire’s favor, allowing for a safe landing, with his balloon undamaged.
McQuire will pilot Kaleidoscope, No. 29, this weekend, sponsored by Moe’s BarBar Shop.