A bout of rainy weather Tuesday did not stop students at Stanford Gibson Primary School in Norwich from exploring the art of flying hot air balloons. 

Lee Teitsworth, of the Livingston County-based Liberty Balloon Company, presented the second in a three-day series of demonstrations with stops at each school in the district.

Teitsworth, a commercial pilot of 15 years and certified flying instructor, explained the differences between helium and hot air balloons — helium balloons are filled with a finite amount of gas and only capable of further ascent by emptying sandbags on board, while hot air balloons are continuously filled or emptied according to the desired altitude, he said.

Ideal flying weather is when the winds are most calm, Teitsworth said; typically just before sunrise or later in the evening. 

“Balloons don’t have a steering wheel or an engine, so for the most part we don’t control where it goes,” he said. Because the wind blows differently according to altitude, balloons are navigated by “catching” winds at varying heights, but the air remains mostly still for passengers.

“A balloon ride is so calm and gentle and peaceful that almost everybody has a lot of fun,” Teitsworth said. “We go where the wind takes us.”

Teitsworth detailed the history of balloon flight, from the 1783 demonstration of the Montgolfier brothers in Paris to present-day launches.

Early pioneers of balloon flight believed smoke was responsible for lift, Teitsworth said, and the smellier the flame, the more effective it was believed to be. Fires underneath the first balloons were fed by old thatch, leather shoes and pig dung, he said.

Modern balloons are inflated by the hot air produced by dual propane burners capable of generating 20-foot flames — a potentially scary sight, he explained to the early crowd of pre-K and kindergarten students.

“Would it be scary to fly in a hot air balloon?” Teitsworth asked. “I think it’s so easy a baby could do it,” he said, displaying a closeup photo of a young girl leaning in next to a woman holding a baby, each of them smiling.

The photo was taken in the summer of 1983, Teitsworth said; exactly two centuries after the Montgolfiers’ inaugural launch. He, his mother and sister are the subjects, and the moment captured was his first balloon ride at six months old, with his father at the helm.

Teitsworth said his father, Carroll, began flying balloons in 1977 and started the family business he now operates with his siblings. He and his brother are licensed pilots, one sister manages the office and another runs her own ride business in Virginia, he said.

Teitsworth has four kids of his own, ages 10 to 11 months, who share their family’s love of flying.

“They come to festivals, they draw me balloon pictures all the time,” he said. “It’s definitely a family affair.”

Pilots must pass a written and flight test before obtaining their licenses, Teitsworth said. Commercial licenses are granted to pilots 18 and older; passenger licenses to 16-year-olds, and solo licenses to those as young as 14, Teitsworth said.

He told the later audience of six-, seven- and eight-year-olds he piloted his first flight at the age of 11, so “you are not very far away from doing some very neat things.”

The balloon company is contracted with RE/MAX real estate to operate its signature red, white and blue balloon, Teitsworth said, which he unfurled on the gymnasium floor for the students to see.

“After we fill it with air, I thought you might enjoy it if we fill it with students,” he said to the crowd.

Fully inflated, the RE/MAX balloon is seven stories tall with a capacity of 90,000 cubic feet of air — the equivalent of 90,000 basketballs, Teitsworth said, to put the measure in primary school terms.

Inside the balloon, Teitsworth demonstrated the durability of the flame-resistant nylon fabric that comprises the balloon’s shell. He called upon preschooler Aiden O’Hara, who was celebrating his fifth birthday, to try to tear a swatch of the fabric in front of his classmates.

Even with some starting help from a pair of scissors, the harder Aiden pulled, the more the fabric bunched in his hands, which Teitsworth attributed to the weave pattern of the material, an intricate grid formed by rip-stops.

“When life gets tough, you can all be stronger than anyone else thinks you are," he said, "just like balloon fabric."

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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