Up, up and away: Beautiful balloons

Friday, July 15, 2011
Flames from a burner fed by a propane tank heat the air of the Arrington Vinyards' balloon piloted by Bob Grimes of Lewisburg.

Bob Grimes of Lewisburg is among those who have unusual jobs.

As a hot air balloon pilot, an aeronaut, Grimes flies his lighter-than-air aircraft for fun and profit.

His career, however, includes times when his passion for this kind of flight is "kind of like being an artist," he said after someone commented maybe he's been a "starving artist."

It ain't necessarily so, says the man who took Marshall County residents on tethered rides over Rock Creek Park one night during the Rotary Club's "On the Rocks" barbecue contest in Lewisburg's park six weeks ago.

Grimes moved to Tennessee in January 2000 after his childhood and college years in Michigan. In July 2006 he moved from Franklin to Lewisburg. When Grimes was in high school, his neighbor flew balloons and put on exhibits and advertising flights. One was in an Atlanta hotel's atrium where the balloon was hung from the ceiling before it was inflated and then raised and lowered according to the heat in the balloon.

Now, years later and in his own business, one of Grimes' balloons displays the logo of Kix Brooks' Arrington Vineyards in southern Williamson County. The basket for flights with four passengers was an asset he obtained when the country duo Brooks and Dunn split up.

One of his talents as a balloonist is to know which way the wind is blowing at different altitudes. Then it's important to know places to land. Before launching, he releases a black toy balloon filled with helium. He'll time that balloon's rate of ascent with a stopwatch to see when it shifts course, thereby indicating what altitude he must have to change course.

During flights, he has enough control to fly low over a wheat- or cornfield and gently brush the top tassels. Then with a blast of flames the balloon can rise quickly to fly over a fencerow of trees.

Before establishing his business in Williamson County, Grimes worked at Home Depot for about six years. As clients became aware of his service, he became an independent businessman. He still holds some hope that Home Depot might become a client that would want a specialty balloon in the shape of its trademarked craftsman's head with his ball cap beak pulled over his eyes. A paint company has had a balloon in the shape of a paint can. Brooks and Dunn's balloon had appendages that looked like a bull's horns. That balloon was used to drum up interest in the country musicians' concerts by flying over the cities where concerts were scheduled.

Home Depot wanted to have a balloon fly over NASCAR tracks to promote Tony Stewart's racecar sponsored by the home improvement store. NASCAR wasn't too keen on the idea of a balloon flying over the track.

Grimes has four balloons now.

Federal Aviation Administration records show there are about 4,000 licensed balloonists in the United States, Grimes reports. Aeronauts are not required to pass a physical exam like pilots of heavier-than-air aircraft.

That's a mystery to Grimes: "Flying a balloon is more of a physical job than being an airplane pilot."

Lowering a balloon is done by letting the hot air cool, or pulling ropes to control the hot air's lift.

He has a "chase team," including other aeronauts who help launch and repackage the balloons. Deflated, the big Arrington balloon weighs about 310 pounds. Balloons are made of ripstop nylon and that light but strong fabric increases in weight with paint, about 2.3 ounces per square yard. The balloon, including the basket is 80 feet tall.

It may seem small in the sky, but when balloons skim treetops, home roofs and land in a neighborhood's empty lot, it's not unusual for people to react.

During a flight late last month, Grimes landed between a couple of homes in a Brentwood subdivision. Grace was being said over a family dinner when the school age son looked out the window.

"Holy Mother of God," he reportedly exclaimed.

A hot meal was abandoned to see a hot air balloon.

Then a parent encouraged the kids to return home.