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Launching a dream: Maryland’s youngest hot air balloon pilot sees beauty from above

‘May the winds welcome you with softness,
May the sun bless you with its warm hands,
May you fly so high and so well,
That God joins you in laughter and sets you back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth.’

– Balloonist’s Prayer

Gently floating some 3,600 feet above northern Baltimore County in his red, white and blue hot air balloon, 18-year-old Matthew Lindinsky scanned the landscape below as intently as the hawks that soared not far beneath him.

“It’s beautiful up here,” said Matt, pulling a lever that shot a bright orange flame through the balloon’s hollow interior – heating the air and lifting the craft higher above a panoply of fields, homes and patches of woods.

“It’s some of God’s beauty that a lot of people don’t get to see,” said the young parishioner of St. Joseph, Cockeysville. “In a hot air balloon you have time to look around. It’s not like in a plane. They don’t do it justice.”

Ever since Matt passed his flight test and became Maryland’s youngest hot air balloon pilot on August 24, the nascent aviator has been on cloud nine. Floating on the winds is all he’s wanted to do since he took his first ride at age 6 when his father put him in a hot air balloon at the annual Preakness celebration.

“They needed more weight,” Matt recalled. “So I hopped in. I was hooked.”

Matt joined the Chesapeake Balloon Association at age 11, serving as a crewmember for the association’s president. By the time he turned 14, he earned his student pilot license and has spent the last two years working as an operator at the “Hi-Flyer” hot air balloon attraction at Port Discovery in the Inner Harbor.

Michael Lindinsky, Matt’s father, purchased a used hot air balloon a year ago in Indiana that had been featured in promotional materials for the Indiana State Fair.

The father-son team formed the “Up, Up Away Hot Air Balloon Company” and plan to begin offering commercial flights this spring once Matt reaches the 35 flight hours he needs to take his commercial license test. He has already logged more than 21 hours, taking to the sky twice every weekend when the weather is good.

Matt usually launches from his grandmother’s front yard in Parkton or from his own home in Baldwin. Before getting under way, he releases a helium-filled balloon to determine wind direction and speed. Then it’s all work.

On a recent, bright mid-November morning, he inspected two 18-gallon propane tanks that fuel the burners that heat the air inside the balloon. Because of the pre-dawn chill, the pilot added some nitrogen to the tanks to help maintain burner pressure.

Once everything seemed in order, Matt joined his father, uncle and two other helpers to unload the 253-pound limp nylon balloon called an “envelope.” After a few more inspections, Matt started a huge fan to pump air into the 90,000 cubic-feet envelope spread out on the yard. Once filled, it stood 70 feet tall.

The pilot and two passengers stepped into a wicker basket that can carry four people. Then Matt roared the burners, launching the mammoth inverted teardrop at a rate of about 400 feet a minute not long after the break of dawn.

Once in the air, the gunshots of goose hunters on the ground could be heard along with an occasional barking dog. When passing over a small herd of cows, Matt switched to a “whisper burner” that made less noise than the regular one.

“We don’t want to scare the cows,” explained Matt, a senior at Calvert Hall College High School in Towson.

Each blast of heat lifted the balloon, while lapses caused it to descend slowly.

A group of jockeys mounted on horses followed the balloon for a stretch of its 90-minute flight and several curious homeowners waved from their backyards or shouted greetings.

Although it’s always clear where the balloon will take off, Matt never knows where he’s going to land.

“You are totally at the mercy of the wind,” he said, noting that he has landed in yards and fields. “That’s the hardest part. You don’t know where you are going.”

Matt said he’s always careful to avoid power lines and trees. On this particular day, the winds seem to keep him momentarily suspended above some trees before he spots a vacant cornfield.

Planting the balloon on the ground without so much as a bump, Matt smiled as the owners of the cornfield excitedly raced toward him.

“What a great way to wake up on a fall morning!” exclaimed Bentley Offutt, the owner of the cornfield who gathered his family around the balloon and took photographs that he hopes to use for this year’s Christmas cards.

“This is quite a beautiful event,” said Offutt, a parishioner of Sacred Heart, Glyndon.

Following a centuries-old tradition, Matt pulled out a bottle of champagne and presented it to Offutt in appreciation for allowing a hot air balloon on his property. The bottle was stamped with the “Balloonist’s Prayer” which calls on the winds to “welcome you with softness.”

“This is to let you know that we are from Earth,” said Matt as he handed the champagne bottle to Offutt. The balloonist noted that back in the 1780s, frightened French farmers thought the hot air balloon of Joseph and Ettienne Montgolfier that landed on their property was from another planet. The early aviators appeased the farmers with alcohol.

“Ninety-nine percent of people are good about us landing in their yards,” said Matt, although this particular flight caused some grumbling among a few hunters who complained that the balloon scared the geese away.

While Matt was in the air, a chase vehicle stayed ahead of him on the ground, meeting up with him at the cornfield. His father and other crewmembers helped deflate the balloon and pack it on a trailer that was emblazoned with Matt’s name and “Up, Up Away Balloon Company.”

The fear of heights is the biggest reason people don’t want to get into a hot air balloon, said Matt, who confessed that while he has no problem soaring several thousand feet in the air, he is reluctant to step onto a tall ladder.

An Explorer with the Baltimore County Police Department, Matt said he’s not sure what college he will attend next year. Ballooning won’t be his primary career, he said, but it will be a lifelong avocation.

“Flying is so peaceful and quiet,” he said. “I love it.”

Email George Matysek at gmatysek@CatholicReview.org.

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