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|Jonesville man competing Louisiana State Hot Air Balloon Championship in BR|
BY LEO HONEYCUTT
BATON ROUGE -- The alarm clangs loudly at 4:30 a.m., waking the dead for miles around.
Lamar Poole, who grew up in Jonesville admiring cropdusters, hits the floor to take flight himself. Poole flies hot air balloons as a hobby and is competing for Louisiana State Hot Air Balloon Champion at this weekend's competition in Baton Rouge, Aug 7-9. It is free to the public.
"There's nothing like it," Poole describes of flying. "I fly treetop to treetop, floating across fields and forests. When you fly over residential areas, you can carry on conversations with folks on the ground. Early in the morning, you can smell the coffee brewing."
Coffee and propane, that is.
"The breakfast of champions!" he laughs. "Actually, the balloonist breakfast of champions is propane and champagne!"
Those who fly for the first time are usually showered with champagne in ceremony after landing.
An hour or so before that, Poole and crew are on site, ready to launch at 5 a.m., because sunup offers the best air currents. Once Ol' Sol heats up the earth, thermals stir up air currents, creating shifting winds that can blow a seven-story balloon off course in no time. "Of course, there is no 'course,'" says Poole.
Past guessing at wind currents at different altitudes, these bouncing behemoths are not steerable. Pilots are completely at the mercy of the winds and if they shift in mid-flight -- which they often do -- balloonists and their passengers can wind up anywhere. Pastures, crops, subdivisions, swamps, the land of Oz.
This is not good if you are vying for a title and thousands of dollars in prize money. At Pennington Field in Baton Rouge, 40 pilots will all be triangulating on targets and on a 30-foot red stick ("Baton Rouge") off which pilots may pluck thousands in cash. This is not easy. But that's why 60,000 shutter-clicking spectators will be on hand over three days watching multi-colored balloons gently fly just over their heads.
Every seat is in the front row, free, and free parking. Friday and Saturday nights, they all come back to watch the pilots light up their balloons in a "Balloon Glow," a kaleidoscope of 90,000-cubic foot multi-colored light bulbs.
Also Friday and Saturday, The U.S. Army "Black Daggers" Precision Skydiving Team will hurtle down from 2,000 feet twice, once before sundown and the other at night while they perform curly-cues with sparklers. Then the two nights are capped off with fireworks set to music and live bands.
But Poole wants to master the winds, something Man has been trying to do since the original dawn. "There's just a magic to it. Even flying at low altitude in a small plane won't give you the same sensation. In a balloon, you're as free as a bird looking down from the treetops."
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