Luke Cesnik turns the burner valves from inside the basket of his hot air balloon and red, super-hot flames push warm air into the envelope of the balloon. He shouts commands at his crew to hold it steady from the opposite end as it begins to inflate and fight with the wind. It takes the weight of six people in the basket to keep it from leaving the ground.

By Gus Bode

It is the simplist of scientific principals that make the balloon rise:warm air is less dense than cool air. Yet it is a delicate, in sync dance of at least eight team members that keep the balloon from surrendering to the wind. After cool air was first pushed into the balloon with a gigantic fan, Cesnik turned the burner valves and the hot flames began to breathe life into the seven-story, 300 pound balloon honoring U.S. soldiers that are prisoners of war or missing in action. It began to fatten, stretch toward the sky and sway in the wind. Something that was earlier lifeless, begins to develop a fiesty personality much like a monster at the hands of an evil scientist in a cheap sci-fi movie.

The team fights that balloon and eventually they come out the winners. They succeed in tying it to the ground for the balloon glow that is about to take place at the 13th Annual 2002 Centralia Balloon Fest.

But as much work as it is for a team of eight to put up a hot air balloon, nothing can motivate them to take it down as quickly as thunder and lightning.


Although balloon pilots will float above the terrain most of us are content being grounded to, almost completely at the mercy of the wind, hanging their lives on a gigantic piece of cloth, one thing they won’t do is challenge the forecast.

The more than 40 balloon pilots present ordered their balloons down at the first sign of bad weather as did the husband-and-wife pilot team, Luke and Pam Cesnik.

Luke, however, won’t let the fast approaching storm rain on his show.

Cesnik stands in the basket now disconnected from the envelope, or the cloth part of the balloon, and turns the valves similar to those on a gas grill.

Red flames shoot at least seven feet high against the darkening sky as two burners emitting 19 million British thermal unit each send a heat wave across the gathering crowd.

“Don’t mind the man behind the curtain,” he says, imitating Dorothy’s run-in with the unlikely stage man in the Wizard of Oz.

Again and again he turns the valves causing red flames to shoot from his arms and a loud roar similar to that of a jet engine sounding from the burners. His eyes light up like a little kid at the carnival or a 16-year-old boy behind the wheel of a car for the very first time.


He’s just showing off and his wife knows it.

“He’s just looking for attention,” his wife Pam Cesnik says.

But the crowd is fascinated, or at lest content after the threatening storm canceled Saturday night’s scheduled balloon glow at the 2002 Centraila Balloon fest that took place about one hour north of Carbondale.

Because, as Cesnik says, when your in the balloon business one thing you don’t mess with is the wind – the other is the rain. If the envelope gets wet and is stored longer than a day it is likely to mildew, rot and eventually ruin. Plus, lifting up on a windy day could mean disaster for the pilot and passengers.

Cesnik belongs to a non-profit organization known as “Freedom Flight” where a team of pilots fly hot-air balloons at events around the world to send a message of awareness and honor the 8,500 plus U.S. soldiers currently prisoners of war or missing in action. The balloon was sponsored by the VFW post 2055 and lady’s auxiliary located in Centrallia. Flight, Inc. is a non-profit,

For Cesnik, a Vietnam Veteran, every trip into the air is a reminder of the soldiers that went overseas and never came home.

“I have to agree with one of our pilots who stated once that ballooning is a blast, but this is the hardest balloon to fly,” he said.

The science of hot-air balloons:how they get lift

Hot air balloons are the oldest form of man-made flight and they operate on one of the simplest scientific principles:warmer air rises in cooler air. Hot air is lighter than cool air, essentially, because it has less mass. The hot air rises through the cold air similar to how a bubble rises to the surface of a glass of water.

Even though the “Freedom Flight” balloon didn’t leave the ground Saturday, it did begin the process. The team stretched out the unusually large envelope reaching seven stories on the ground. A typical envelope is five to six stories high and the larger the balloon envelope the more upper altitude limit is allowed. The rest of the team held open the balloon while a huge fan filled the balloon with cold air to its capacity. After the envelope is full of cold air, the pilot turns the valves on the propane burners located inside the basket, which is still positioned on its side. The burners, similar to gigantic torches, fill the envelope with super-heated air causing the balloon to float upward. Hot air doesn’t escape from the hole at the bottom of the envelope because buoyancy keeps it moving upward.

Hot-air balloons are so large because each cubic foot of air contained in the envelope can only lift 7 grams. Therefore to lift 1,000 pounds, or roughly 6 people, it takes 65,000 cubic feet of hot air. As the balloon floats upward the basket begins to tilt upright and threatens to leave the ground. Cesnik makes the call for the team to jump inside and six people cram fill the basket to hold it to the ground as the remainder of the team hold ropes at polar ends of the balloon.

It took about a whole team of balloon enthusiasts to keep the Freedom Flight from sweeping away with the wind once the envelope was erect. It was more than ready to take the sky.

“Weight on the basket guys, weight on the basket,” the pilot yelled as the envelope raised from the ground to a standing position that reached above the top of the surrounding trees.

The plan was to let the balloon tether at a distance several feet above the ground, secured to the ground by ropes for the balloon glow, but the thunder rained on that parade.

In the Air:A hot-air balloon will stay afloat for about 20 to 30 miles, which at high-speed winds would take a little more than an hour. Pilots are mostly at the mercy of the wind although they can administer some control by turning on the burners and heating the air in the balloon. Pilots have about 38 million b.t.u., ( 1 b.t.u. equals the amount of heat required to increase the temperature of a pound of water 1 degree Fahrenheit) at their controls. Pilots can also choose their landing sight and reposition a decision to land if the site is not desirable. Basically, you get to a target by steering away from it, said Mike England, a balloon pilot who has attended the Centrallia balloon fest all 13 years. He’s turned his hobby into a profession and gives tourists and locals rides in his hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz. Hot-air balloons, however, are not the best mode of transportation if your actually looking to get somewhere because you are at the mercy of the wind. Furthermore, you won’t be able to break Steve Fosset’s round-the-world record in a hot-air-balloon. He managed to traverse the globe, after sixth attempts nonetheless, because his balloon was powered by helium that allows for more control and lift. It operates on the same principal as a child’s balloon filled with helium.

Taking down the balloon

Nothing comes down with as much energy as a hot-air-balloon threatened by the rain. That was the case Saturday. By opening the parachute valve at the top of the envelope from an attached cord in the basket, the balloon begins to deflate. The team grabs the balloon to keep it from knotting on the ground. Once it is deflated, Pam orders the group to begin folding the envelope and placing it into a bag. She then gives the command for “butts to the bag,” which signifies a group of six men to circle around the balloon and smash it down with their bottoms. After the air was deflated from the envelope by the weight of the team, they all grabbed on and carried the 300-pounds worth of material to the truck. Ballons are made from nylon and the skirt or base of the envelope, is coated with special fire-resistant material. The whole taking-down took only about 30 minutes.

In many ways, ballooning has come a long way since 1783 when the first hot-air-balloon sent a sheep, a duck and a chicken on an eight minute flight over France. Their purpose today is mostly recreational, overshowed by more useful means of air travel such as gas powered balloons and, of course, commercial airplanes. But to say that hot air balloons aren’t as cool would be a hard sell at the Centrallia balloon fest.

And for Cesnik and the rest of the VFW crew, its about so much more than floating through the morning air as the sun creeps up or settles into the horizon. It’s also about promoting the importance of bringing American soldiers back home.

“I like ballooning but its not as an important thing as the message.”