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Sky-Sailing : Pair of Balloon Makers Offer Something Special in the Air


"A calm delight which is inexpressible and which no other situation on earth could give."

--Balloon pilot Vincenzo Lunardi, 1784

While others in Orange County are developing some of the world's most sophisticated high-tech aerospace equipment, Carl Gage and Lyle Piccard of Costa Mesa are building flying machines based on technology developed more than 100 years before the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane.

"The (hot air) balloon is sophisticated in its simplicity and it really hasn't changed that much over the years. It is an extremely efficient technological design. It can lift two or three times its own weight and can climb faster than many airplanes," said Gage, a former Marine Corps corporal.

"Planes are nice if you want to get there fast. But if you really want to look at the world, fly a balloon."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 7, 1989 Orange County Edition Orange County Life Part N Page 3 Column 5 Life Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Balloonist--A Nov. 16 article incorrectly identified a Costa Mesa balloon manufacturer. His name is Lyle Eckmeier.

Orange County is too heavily populated for balloon flights, but nearby boatyards are convenient for construction, since the balloons are made of the same nylon fabric used to make spinnakers for sailboats.

"Ballooning is in many ways closer to sailing than to flying," Gage said. "I like to call it sky-sailing."

Gage and Piccard operate AIR, which stands for Aeronaut Instruction & Research, the only commercial balloon manufacturer on the West Coast and one of only six in the nation. They make seven to 12 balloons a year at $15,000 to $30,000 each, depending on the design.

Although AIR builds mostly hot air balloons, it was recently awarded a contract from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to build a series of helium balloons for meteorological experiments conducted by JPL and the University of Massachusetts.

The balloon structure consists of a network of supporting canvas tapes and cables that extend down and connect to a basket. The support network can be built vertically, horizontally or both--allowing the designer flexibility and creativity in shaping the balloon envelope.

Colorful fabric panels are sewn between the web of support tapes on the shop's six sewing machines. One of AIR's more unusual designs was a tomato-shaped balloon created for a pizza parlor chain in the Midwest.

The balloon gondola is made of wicker and rattan, the same materials used in the first balloons more than 200 years ago. "You need something strong enough to carry passengers, but with enough give and flexibility not to injure them in a rough landing," Gage said.

Rattan is used for the larger portions of the basket and wicker for the small spaces in between. The reeds are soaked in a tub behind the shop and hand-woven around a frame with a metal bottom that serves as a platform for passengers. Portions of the basket are reinforced and padded with suede. Removable tanks of liquid propane gas are fitted inside the basket and hooked up to a detachable stainless steel burner, used to heat the air inside the balloon.

Working together, Gage and Piccard can build a balloon in a month, but the work can be completed in just over a week with a few extra helpers at the sewing machines.

"You are working with over 1,000 yards of fabric, and even though you have traced the patterns onto paper and cut the fabric panels around them and sewn it all up, you still don't know exactly what you have until you blow it up, and by then it's five stories tall," Piccard said. "My mother taught me to sew them and fly them."

Piccard's mother, Willie, held American balloon-flying records in the 1970s. His stepfather, Don Piccard, built balloons out of a sailboat loft in Newport Beach for almost 30 years and is credited with developing hot air ballooning as a sport in the United States.

Piccard is the son of scientists Jean and Jeannete Piccard, who were among the first to conduct manned balloon flights into the stratosphere in the 1930s. The experiments delivered information about cosmic rays and the effects of high-altitude flight.

The balloon-making business keeps Gage and Piccard busy but not rich; both work nearly full time in other occupations. Piccard is an industrial designer and Gage works three days a week as an engineer at Channel 22's transmitter facility on Mt. Wilson near Los Angeles.

Both are certified balloon-flying instructors and offer rides on weekends in Temecula, Palm Springs, Paso Robles and Perris Valley. Gage even offers instruction in flying airships like the Goodyear blimp. He designs and sells commemorative pins, which he enthusiastically hands out to his passengers and ground crew.

The pins, along with customary champagne toasts at the end of balloon rides, are not a new gimmick. They are a carry-over from the days when the first balloonists met up with hostile peasants in the countryside when forced to make emergency landings.

"The country people were frightened of the balloons and attacked them with pitchforks. The balloonists calmed them down with champagne and trinkets," Gage said.

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