Stand on a Cloud

by Richard M. Romney

Associate Editor

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    Drift with the wind. There is no sensation of motion, no feeling of height. Until you look down.

    Cutter Field lies on the northern outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico, west of Interstate 25 as it heads north into the desert. The field is usually a lonely place. Even the sagebrush is sparse. The ground is dry and dusty, the air still and calm.

    Early on an October morning, however, the lonely patch of ground changes. The starlight of the early hours reveals a dark line of inanimate forms, a row of tents and trailers. A portable generator kicks in. A couple of bare bulbs strung on wobbly poles flicker, giving hint of life.

    The signs they illuminate look funny, out in the middle of nowhere. “Curlee fries,” they say, or “breakfast burritos.” Some advertise posole, New Mexico’s parched-corn and chili stew.

    In their bubbling oil, the vendors fry “elephant ears,” huge pastries greasy and sweet. In stale Styrofoam cups, weak hot chocolate steams.

    In a few days this strange little city, this row of trinket shops and fast-food wagons, will evaporate like water poured on the desert sand.

    For the moment, though, it is the destination. The headlights flowing toward it form a chain of light that stretches for miles. Buses arrive, full of tour groups, senior citizens, school children, the handicapped. City buses, school buses, trucks, trailers, campers, and cars are all guided to parking areas by flashlight-toting service groups. The vehicles all unload passengers who walk over to the lonely field.

    By 6 A.M. the field is full. Families have rolled out blankets and are sitting on the ground, huddled against the cold. Others mill around, hands in pockets, or wander back and forth, waiting for warmth and hoping for the sun.

    Suddenly there’s a hiss like the breathing of a dragon. All the people hear it and turn toward a small rise in the field. There is light there. If a dragon is breathing, some man is catching its fire. One bag of fire. Then another. The bags glow red and yellow in the black night, swelling to the size of houses. Then slowly they rise and float away, off into the sky.

    The crowd calms. All is silent. Soon it will be dawn.

    More trucks, more men, more machinery rumble onto the field. Baskets in the pickup beds look like huge nests for easter eggs, or maybe for the eggs of a dragon. For as soon as the nests are placed on the ground, there is more hissing, more fire. The dragon hatchlings test their lungs, hurling flames into the dark. They dare the men to harness their power, to catch their fire in a bag. But the men have come prepared. Armed with magic cloth, they trap the dragon’s breath. Their sacks of color glimmer in the half light, puffing and billowing as they ripple and grow.

    Then the sun breaks over Watermelon Mountain. The sun! The victory over the dragons is won, for in daylight dragons disappear. Only their fire remains behind.

    Left on the field is a crowd of thousands. Thousands who now witness a fairy tale of another kind. The bags of hot air, patterned and fashioned by wizards of stitchery, are still alive. Blues and violets, crimsons and greens. Colors stolen from the rainbow, bright now in the rays of the sun. It is as if a farmer has used jewels for seeds, scattering emeralds and sapphires among the juniper and the cactus. And the seeds have taken root. The jewel flowers sprout from the flat desert floor, stretching and unfolding into towers of color 50 to 80 feet tall, tethered only by the ropes that bind them to the ground.

    Everywhere the people turn, they are surrounded by jewels. The people spin and whirl, looking every direction, trying to see everything, trying to catch it all. Still the blossoms keep opening, more and more and more. The entire field is alive with patterns and colors that began spread flat, puffed up into life, and now stand erect and tall.

    Enter the princesses of this Land of Enchantment: Jennifer and Amy, heirs to the throne, their family crest emblazoned on their coats. With a nod of their heads, they transform the jewel flowers into hot air balloons.

    Of course the royal family’s balloon must be the fairest of all. Maroons and purples are disdained. Not even scarlet captures the delicacy of the princesses’ balloon. This jewel is fashioned from the yellow and orange of a sunrise, from the pink of a lightly clouded sunset.

    As loyal subjects cheer, the princesses climb into the wicker basket attached to the balloon, wave farewell, and ascend into the clouds. The other balloons rise with them, filling the sky with spots of color until, from a distance, the horizon seems adorned with Christmas ornaments.

    Below, the crowd disperses. The field is lonely once again.

    It is from such images of balloons and dragons, jeweled flowers and empty fields, that two very real young Latter-day Saints, Jennifer and Amy Komadina, spin their fantasies. But there is substance to their daydreams. Jennifer, 14, and Amy, 12, live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the hot air balloon capital of the world. Every year, balloons from around the world gather at Cutter Field for the nine-day International Balloon Fiesta, and a small town of food and souvenir stands springs up around the launch site. On calm mornings, a two-balloon dawn patrol inflates in the dark hours, using propane burners that do hiss like, well, like a dragon breathing. The sun does break over Sandia Crest, a name that means “watermelon” in Spanish. And just after dawn, 500 or more balloons all rise together in a “mass ascension,” a spectacle so colorful it seems like a fairy tale.

    Except on Sundays, Jennifer and Amy are right in the middle of it, flying in their family’s pink, yellow, and orange balloon. Although their father is the pilot, Jennifer has a learner’s permit and expects to have her own license as soon as she turns 16, the minimum age allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Amy serves as crew chief, delegating pre-flight assignments to the ground crew, which includes another sister, her younger brothers, her mother, neighbors, ward members, and local seminary teacher Patty Cole.

    “We’ve been in the Fiesta for four years now,” Jennifer explained. “It seems to get bigger every year.” In 1983, the 12th annual Fiesta celebrated 200 years of manned flight, looking back to November 21, 1783, in Paris, France, when Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes were carried aloft in Joseph and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier’s varnished paper balloon filled with smoke.

    The Komadinas look back to their first trip to the Fiesta as their incentive for getting involved in the sport.

    “Seven years ago, 1977, we had just moved back to Albuquerque from California,” Steve Komadina, Jenny and Amy’s father, explained. “In Albuquerque you see balloons floating by almost every day. So naturally I wanted to take the family to the Fiesta. I couldn’t believe it when we got there. I felt like Gulliver in the land of giants, surrounded by these giant balloons. I went home wishing that somehow we could be a part of it.”

    In 1978 Brother Komadina contacted a friend who owned a balloon and asked for a ride. Everything was set, but then it rained. (Balloons only fly in calm, clear skies, usually in the morning before the sun creates thermal drafts.)

    In 1979, the family decided to buy Dad a balloon ride for a Christmas present. “It was everything I hoped it would be,” he said. “Peaceful. Quiet. Like standing on a cloud.”

    Time for a family council.

    “I thought it would be a good way to have a hobby the whole family could get involved in,” Brother Komadina explained. “But the only way I could see to make it work was to include it as part of our family company.”

    That meant everybody would have to help. But that’s something the Komadina children are used to. Their family company also rents out rafts for river runners and llamas for backpacking, and organizes rafting and hiking trips. And every child has a job, even if it’s just helping make sandwiches or picking up trash. (Amy, 12, Becky, 10, Spencer, 8, Neal, 6, and Mark, 4, complete the family crew. Mom’s name is Penny.) Dad has another job, too. He’s an obstetrician at Presbyterian Hospital.

    The Komadinas were able to purchase two used balloons for about the cost of a mid-sized car, then pay for them by selling rides and advertising. Their favorite advertisement is a stork permanently stitched to the side of one balloon—a plug for what Dr. Komadina does for a living.

    In their four years of flying, the Komadinas have three claims to fame.

    “The second year we were in the Fiesta, Dad won second place in the roadrunner-and-coyote contest,” Jenny said. In other regions, that’s the hare-and-hound chase. One balloon takes off and tries to lose others. The pursuers try to keep on its trail and land next to it. The coyote that lands the closest wins.

    That year the family also won a second place in the parade that rolls through town following the first mass ascension.

    But it was in 1982 that the Komadinas made ballooning history. It started out as a service to the elderly in the Albuquerque 5th Ward, where the Komadinas live and where Jenny was at the time Beehive president.

    “There was one couple, Brother and Sister Pat Miller, who had never been able to get out to the Fiesta,” Jenny said. “We thought it would be fun if we brought the Fiesta, or at least part of it, to them.” So instead of launching their two balloons at Cutter Field the Komadinas inflated them at the ward parking lot.

    The youth of the ward sponsored a “balloon breakfast” and provided transportation for older members who might not otherwise have a chance to see a balloon up close.

    “I can still remember what it felt like to touch the fabric, look at the basket, and watch them use hot air to make it fly,” Brother Miller said. “It was wonderful to think the youth would organize something so we could have a chance to see.” The breakfast also helped to fund a temple trip for the Young Men and Young Women.

    After breakfast, many of the ward members joined the chase crew—the people and vehicles who follow along behind the balloon on the ground and assist when it lands. That’s where the history comes in. The Komadinas hold the record for the Fiesta’s largest chase crew ever—97 people in 23 vehicles. “Everywhere you looked you’d see them following you,” Amy said.

    The whole event typified the family’s attitude about ballooning: sharing. The balloon has been used to give rides at a regional youth conference. It has been used to help the Boy Scouts, even to the point of forming an Explorer post with a ballooning specialty. It has provided an opportunity for the family to share the gospel with other balloonists, especially when explaining why they leave weekend activities early in order to be home for church on Sunday. It’s even been the site for family discussions: “They can’t get away from you up there,” Brother Komadina laughed.

    More than anything, it’s been a chance for the family to share with each other. “The emphasis is really zero on ballooning and 100 percent on family,” Sister Komadina said. “This is something we all can do, and it’s exciting enough that the children’s friends want to do it with them, too. At first I didn’t want to get involved with it. But now I enjoy it, except for getting up early.”

    Sharing, Komadina style, doesn’t end with the balloon. “We have family home evening every week and family councils all the time,” Amy said. “We read out of the Bible every night together.”

    “My father’s my friend,” Amy said. “We have a lot of the same interests. I feel like I can talk to him. He took me out backpacking on my birthday, just so we could be together. He’s busy because of all his patients, but he tries to give us all the time he can.”

    “Besides,” Jenny added, “if you can trust your father enough to go up in a balloon with him, you can trust him with almost anything.”

    It is a scary thing, going up in a balloon for the first time. But it’s hard to worry too much, because there are so many things to do in advance.

    On a typical launch day, the Komadinas and anyone accompanying them gather in the family living room for prayer. Then Amy and Jennifer give talks, much like stewardesses preparing passengers for takeoff on an airplane. They discuss safety (it’s important not to get in or out of the basket unless told to, because ballast is critical), preparation for landing (it’s important to remember to bend your knees to help absorb the impact), and flying techniques (the balloon drifts with the wind, but by ascending or descending, the pilot can usually find a breeze headed in the direction he wants to go).

    At the launch site, two or three people unpack the balloon and spread it on the ground. Around the top of the fabric “envelope,” velcro strips are fastened together to keep flaps closed until the balloon stands upright. The mouth of the balloon is held open and a large fan is used to blow air into the nylon or polyester envelope. The propane burner then heats the air, which rises inside the envelope, inflating it even more.

    The balloon then tries to assume an upright position. But if that happens too fast, the balloon will not inflate properly, so crew members use a “crown line,” a rope attached to the top of the envelope, to pull against the force of the air. It’s a tug-of-war that two adults or six kids never win.

    While all this is going on, the pilot checks gauges which indicate fuel quantity, altitude, rate of climb or descent, and air temperature inside the envelope. As the balloon becomes more buoyant, he will have passengers join him to act as an anchor while he adds more hot air. Finally, when everyone’s ready, he blasts still more hot air into the envelope until the balloon begins to rise. To keep rising, he heats the air, to come down, he can let it cool off or he can pull a rope that allows air to escape.

    Any fear a passenger has disappears quickly. It is as though the balloon remains where it is and the earth moves away. The only sound is the occasional hissing of the burner. The only feeling of height comes when you look down and suddenly realize that you’re 1,500 feet in the air!

    It is flight without wings, flight without a runway or the whine of jet engines. Because the balloon floats with the breeze, there is no sensation of motion. It is, indeed, like standing on a cloud, quietly watching the earth beneath.

    “When I’m up here, I think about Heavenly Father,” Jennifer said. “I feel close to him, peaceful, when I see the world he’s created and how big it is. You somehow know he’s in charge.”

    Her father agreed. “You get some idea of who you are and how small you would be on your own. But you also get a feeling for what Heavenly Father has made, what he can help you accomplish if you have him on your side.”

    Jennifer and Amy talk freely about what’s going on at school and in the ward. They had been in the same Beehive class for a little while, but now Jennifer is a Mia Maid, a freshman at Valley High School active in the ski club, speech club, student council, and orchestra. “I ran for student-body treasurer and lost,” she said, “but don’t put that!” She also talks about how she invited some non-LDS friends to a youth conference and “now they want to come to all the dances and activities.”

    Amy, who attends Taft Middle School, enjoys chorus, putting on plays, and, during the Fiesta, launching the balloon from the school yard, much to the delight of her classmates. “We get permission from the principal first,” she said, grinning. Of course, they talk about ballooning, too.

    “Nobody doesn’t love a balloon,” Amy said. “We fly over people’s houses that we know, and you can see everything. People come running out in shower caps and bath robes just to wave. If you drop down low, you can hear the dogs barking and see horses run back and forth, but nobody complains.”

    “People here are used to balloons,” Jenny added. “It’s a mutual benefit. Pilots love to fly them, and people on the ground love to watch them float by.”

    “Sometimes I get cold and grouchy early in the morning,” Amy said. “But then I remember my first flight. We went over to the West Mesa where it’s flat and there aren’t any power lines or roads to worry about. It’s a good place to learn. There was snow on the ground. We came down and skimmed the bushes and saw some jackrabbits, then went back up again. Every time we go it’s fun like that. I want to be a balloonist for a long time.”

    Even in the Land of Enchantment, the propane supply only lasts about two hours, so eventually the flight had to end. Visions of dragon fire captured in a sack, of jeweled seeds sprouting into towers of color, of Christmas ornaments decorating the sky, would all fade back into a normal world as soon as the balloon touched down.

    Even the princesses would be transformed, from lead roles in a fantasy to supporting roles in a family. Floating with them through the sky, it had been easy to imagine Princess Jennifer and Princess Amy as benevolent daughters of the king of balloon land. Now, chatting with Jennifer, Amy, and their father, knowing we would soon be landing, it was like talking to any happy LDS family anywhere. They could have been in the chapel foyer after sacrament meeting, or sitting at home eating their family favorite, pizza with everything, or even doing homework around the kitchen table.

    Except that they were up in the sky, standing on a cloud. And even though the Komadinas are just like a lot of other close-knit LDS families full of love, that distinction makes them unique.

    Photos by Richard M. Romney, Brian K. Kelly, and Bryan Lee Shaw

    Crown princesses in a world of fantasy, Jennifer and Amy Komadina float through the air in a balloon named the Enchanted Stork.

    Quiet, calm air is a must for balloon flight, so the dawn patrol takes off before the sun. Jennifer spreads a pink and yellow envelope to catch dragon fire when her father touches off the burner, and other crews ready their craft for flight.

    Growing like magical flowers, balloons sprout from the desert soil. Repeated blasts from propane jets maintain the rounded shapes, allowing tourists to wander through a kaleidoscope of colors. But behind the pageantry, there’s a lot of work for the crews.

    Once a year, balloons cluster in Albuquerque like diamonds in the crown jewels. More than 500 balloonists, including Jennifer, simultaneously ascend into the sky.

    Geometric patterns formed by farmers’ fields add to the fascination the Komadinas feel when they’re “standing on a cloud.” Chase crews (in this case family and friends) follow the balloon in flight and help repack the huge nylon envelope when the balloon lands.

    On their final day at the Fiesta, the Komadinas watch the first wave of balloons take to the air. Two more waves will follow, until the desert sky surrounding Albuquerque seems decorated with Christmas ornaments. Though ballooning has been popular since the first flight in 1783, the Komadinas have been pioneers in making it a family sport.