On an evening ride with the guys of the Black Sheep Squadron, our writer learns how hot air ballooning in Lake George can include mid-air races, a great view of Green Island, some serious razzing, and quite the after-party.
By Catherine Shannon
There are three unofficial rules I wish I had known before meeting up with the Black Sheep Squadron, a tight-knit group of young hot air balloon pilots from the Glens Falls area of Lake George, New York. Number one: Never be late to a launch. Number two: Never ask DarkStar balloon pilot Andrew Avon about his nickname “Balloon Baby.” And three: Always remember champagne.
“I need you to sign off on these,” deadpanned Avon, shoving a waiver into my open hand. I had already broken rule number one by arriving 45 minutes late. Avon, who was rushing back and forth checking equipment in his basket and balloon, was obviously a little annoyed by my tardiness. “Nice to meet you, too,” I mumbled, reading the form. My eyes immediately went to the words “Assumption of Risks.”
Risks? I had always associated balloons with happy, peaceful things – like rainbows and ponies. But what I quickly discerned was that there was a necessary element of gravity to soaring 1,000 feet in the air, even for this group of 30-somethings, whom I’d been told were full of pranks and had banded together in 2006 because they’d felt like outcasts among the area’s older generation of pilots.
Even after running through the safety precautions and lifting off, Avon remained serious. He hushed me after my first string of questions, one about his nickname. (I had now violated rule number two.) “I need to concentrate,” he said, checking the elevation gauge. “We can talk all you want during the after-party.” After-party? I shut my mouth and turned my attention to the farmlands below.
Suddenly, I heard, “Hey, Andrew!” and watched, horrified, as the owner of SunKiss Ballooning, Todd Monahan, closed in on us in his balloon. “Is it OK if he hits us?” I asked, my voice dripping with worry. “We should be OK,” said Avon dryly. He did a double-take at my horrified expression, then laughed. I did, too, but out of relief. That’s when Avon’s spirits picked up. He began yelling to the other balloons as the wind pulled and pushed us past one another. We even raced against Monahan’s crew – calling out snide remarks to each other.
I also learned a Black Sheep tradition – as it is with most pilots – of throwing a party post-flight to thank those who allowed balloons to land on their property. So always bring champagne (rule number three). But, since no one owned the field in Fort Edward where we touched down, we moved to an empty nearby parking lot.
There, Monahan was ripping on pilot Mark Pluta for his “hair hat” (a visor with fake hair attached), while everyone else – families, girlfriends, and other friends – gathered around a spread of cheese and crackers, champagne, and two 30-packs of Bud Light. Suddenly, everyone hushed as Monahan shouted for Avon to “Say grace!” Raising his plastic glass of peach champagne, Avon nodded and began the traditional Black Sheep Prayer:
“May you fly so high and so well that the words ‘Black Sheep’ become legend…” he boomed, a rolling rush of “Black Sheep, Black Sheep, Black Sheep” whispers crescendoing from everyone around him, “…as we set you gently back again into the loving arms of our Squadron family.” With that last word, everyone erupted into hoots and hollers as they threw back their champagne and clapped and slapped each other loudly on the back.
“More champagne?” Monahan asked me. I downed my drink and stuck out my glass: “Yes, please.”
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