formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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April 18, 2017 Hot Air

The Liberty Gazette
April 18, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: This summer a lot of hot air will be celebrated during the 40th Great Texas Balloon Race, July 28-30, at the East Texas Regional Airport in Longview.

As far as we can tell, the history of ballooning dates back to sometime between 700 B.C. and 200 A.D. with the Chinese and their unmanned “sky lanterns” developed for military use, or, depending on who you believe, the Nazca Indians of Peru who used manned balloons to aid in making those mysterious line drawings. There’s still some debate about that.

So was it art or was it war? We don’t really know, but we did dig up a few interesting snippets of helium history for you.

The Benihana restaurant founder Rocky Aoki was an avid balloonist. He and three fellow pilots were the first to make a trans-Pacific flight in a balloon when they flew from Nagashimi, Japan to California's Mendocino National Forest. Aoki’s branded air carriage was a great way to get a tax write-off while participating in a sport he loved. I'm sure his boats and motorcycles also carried the company's logo as they carried the flamboyant owner.

One time Rocky was flying with comedian Flip Wilson, who was also a lighter-than-air pilot. Remember his quips from the 1970's, "What you see is what you get" and "When you're hot, you're hot"? Wilson, a regular on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In was one of few blacks back then to make it big in entertainment – and hot air balloon racing. According to a very moving piece by Kevin Cook published five years ago in Golf Digest, Flip once told a young, pretty woman that he was the world's first black helium pilot.

Ready for it?

"What's black helium?" she allegedly asked. Rimshot.

Linda: There are other names you'll find familiar in stories full of hot air. Ballooning was the true birth of aviation, and was witnessed by such notables as King Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette, who, together with tens of thousands of their closest friends were awed in September of 1783 by what they believed was the first airship to rise and say aloft with passengers (although they may not have spoken with the Peruvians about that) – a sheep, a duck, and a rooster – who landed safely after an eight minute flight.

That’s not to say that either of the feathered friends nor the woolly mammal were trained pilots. Rather, the fuel to burn probably just ran out, thus ending the presence of hot air (which rises), and bringing the farm basket down.

The taffeta airship, varnished in alum to fire-proof it, was crafted by two brothers who owned a paper manufacturing business and a third guy who made wallpaper. The third guy apparently had a lot of pull. According to the balloon was royally decorated “with golden flourishes, zodiac signs, and suns”, no doubt to impress the king.

When ballooning came to America in 1793, President George Washington was in the audience, and although I’ve found no documentation that there was any special decorating, I think cherry trees would have been a nice touch.

You should have no trouble finding some interesting designs on the balloons at the big event in Longview this summer, along with activities and attractions for the kiddies, food and drink, arts and crafts, concerts and nighttime balloon glows. To take part, make your way north the last weekend of July to the “Balloon Race Capital of Texas”, and for details go to

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