NORCO — A Sunday morning haze hangs low over the rooftops, washing the landscape in gray and white. In a dusty field on the south side of town, a generator growls and a fan blows shape into a four-story-tall balloon. Bright blue, and decorated with huge yellow butterflies, it seems out of place in the colorless dawn.
A propane burner roars at the mouth of the balloon, slowly nudging two tons of air to rise. Another balloon, rainbow striped, swells and rises alongside the first.
A slight breeze, imperceptible save in the balloons' slow movement, carries the two giants over the construction sites that dot northern Corona, over Temescal Wash and a freight train running east on the Santa Fe line.
This morning, the balloons float to the south and west, avoiding the skies of Norco and, most likely, avoiding controversy.
Pressure on Council
For in Norco, a town where the quality of life is measured in miles of horse trails, a group of residents is putting pressure on the City Council to severely restrict the activities of local balloonists.
Hot-air balloon takeoffs, landings and low flights frighten horses, some residents complain. Saying that ballooning threatens the town's rural life style, a group of horse owners and other residents complained loudly at a recent City Council meeting. But the council sidestepped the issue, saying it will wait until the Federal Aviation Administration has finished its investigation into the residents' complaints.
"Riding a colt with one of those things coming over is a hell of a thrill," said Terry Wright, a candidate for City Council this fall. "Being right there and taking off, with the loud noise, it spooks the horses real bad. . . .
"We've got nothing against them flying, and we've got nothing against them flying over, as long as they're at least 500 feet up," Wright said. (Under federal flight regulations, balloons must maintain an altitude of at least 500 feet, except when taking off or landing.)
Ballooning may conjure romantic images of placid floating above serene countryside, but in truth the powerful burner that keeps a balloon aloft roars loudly as it throws its bright flame upward, heating the air inside.
A balloon, passing low as it makes an approach for landing, can be substantially louder than a small plane passing overhead. Early on a still morning, it often will wake those living nearby.
Most Cheered by Sight
"We see people (coming outside) in pajamas, or wearing next to nothing," as they awaken and watch the balloons, said balloonist Jim Dorsey. Most of them, he said, are cheered by the sight of his balloon.
Wright disagreed. "They like to do it at six o'clock in the morning, but most people in this city like to sleep in."
One of Wright's neighbors, Alan Schuetz, said his horses practically climbed out of their stalls when three balloons took off from a vacant field across the street from his house.
"It was spooking my horses, and my dogs got real upset," Schuetz said.
Horses' eyes magnify what they see, Wright said, and bright colors or loud noises disturb many animals. To a horse, he said, an approaching balloon looks "like the bogyman out in the sky has come to get you."
Wright and Schuetz live on 1st Street, not much more than a quarter mile from Dr. David Dixon's ranch on Parkridge Avenue, on the southern edge of Norco.
Dixon and Dorsey and Dixon's son, John, occasionally launch their balloons there. Most weekends, though, they fly near Winchester or Rancho California, where Dixon owns property.
"It's a social event," said Dixon, a balloon and airplane flight instructor as well as a family practitioner in Corona. "It's the Sunday social event."
Friends and family members, neighbors and curious passers-by join the ground crew in exchange for a chance to fly. In the calm morning air, a half-mile hop may take 20 minutes; the balloons land and take off frequently to give everyone a turn in the basket.
Under federal regulations, an inspector for the FAA confirmed, balloonists can take off and land as often as they want, virtually wherever they want.
Councilman Steve Nathan went up with Dixon last month, to find out for himself whether horses and balloons can co-exist in Norco. Nathan didn't see any problem with Schuetz's--or anyone else's--horses, he said, but did get hooked on ballooning.
'A Lot of Hot Air'
"I think the majority of these complaints are just a lot of hot air," Nathan said at a recent City Council meeting.
"I know for a fact it does spook my horses," Schuetz responded. "If Mr. Nathan didn't see any, he was looking at houses, not horses."
On a more recent flight, Audrey Deardorff's horses were the only ones near which Dixon's and Dorsey's balloons passed. From a couple of hundred feet in the air, her quarter horses seemed entirely uninterested.
"Horses spook at many things," said Deardorff, a horse breeder and Dixon's nearest neighbor. "The balloons are absolutely no problem to me."
But residents who do think balloons are a problem have filed complaints about low flights and noise over the past two months with the FAA. An inspector in the agency's Riverside office declined to discuss the Norco controversy until an investigation is completed.
Waiting for FAA
Despite the vigorous debate that ensued during the City Council meeting, Norco officials won't take the ballooning issue up until the FAA issues its report, said Mayor Ron Wildfong.
"It seems every time someone around here sneezes," Nathan said, "they want an ordinance."
But the angry horse owners say ballooning restrictions are essential to maintain Norco's staunchly protected rural life style. "People moved out here to have cattle, horses, whatever," Wright said. "Balloons have their place, too."
Added Schuetz: "We're not really against balloons. It's just that this is a horse community. That's what it's about."