CEDAR RAPIDS — One September afternoon in 1976, when Susan Stamats — then Susan Portz — was driving her nephew into Cedar Rapids, she saw a ballon that had just landed.
“I thought it was the most incredible, magical thing I’d ever seen,” Stamats said.
She approached the pilot, Peter Stamats, and he convinced her to become a crew member — and eventually his wife.
She also became a certified pilot through the Federal Aviation Administration and has done continuing requirements to keep her certification for the past four decades.
Now, 2,500 hot-air balloon flights later as a pilot, Stamats has seen a lot — from marriage proposals, scattering ashes, landing in a swamp and noticing the changing Cedar Rapids landscape over the years.
To her, hot-air balloons always have been fascinating. Being in the sky is a feeling she describes as peaceful — whether it’s as a pilot in a Balloon Federation of America competition or for her company, Buzzards Glory Balloon Co., flying passengers over Cedar Rapids.
“People’s perception is that it’s a big adrenaline rush,” she said. “It’s not — it’s very relaxing.”
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Since 1977, ballooning has been her livelihood and a family affair — including her extended family, the crew members.
Some 19 years ago, Bill McClelland of Cedar Rapids got into balloon crewing through Chris Gehrke of Cedar Rapids who also crews for Stamats. He started as part of the landing crew, which communicates with the pilot throughout their flight and follows along in a chase vehicle.
“I’ve been chasing her ever since,” McClelland said.
Now he is the chief crew member. His duties start with observing a “pibal” or test balloon, the size of a regular balloon, to determine the direction and speed of the wind. Once the flight is deemed flyable, he leads the crew members in getting the balloon geared up to fly.
The crew members, ranging from ages 7 to 71, help set up the basket, get the hoses of the propane tanks hooked up to the burners, pull the 300 pounds of balloon fabric out of the storage container, hold the balloon open while the pilot lights the burner, tug a rope to control how the balloon is inflating and finally put their weight onto the basket to keep it upright as the passengers climb in.
Then it’s time for takeoff.
“It’s like flying on a magic carpet,” Stamats said. “As the balloon climbs, everything changes before your eyes because the perspective is from above and we’re used to seeing things at ground level.”
Lisa and Megan Heidelbauer of Marion, 12-year-old twins who’ve been crewing with Stamats for as long as they can remember, took their first actual up-in-the-air balloon ride when they were eight years old.
“We were around balloons a lot, it was fun to be up in it the first time,” Lisa recalled.
After chasing the balloon, helping it land and packing up the equipment, the crew and passengers have ceremonial Champagne. For the youngsters, catching the Champagne cork is their way of celebrating.
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The ceremony, a tradition for ballooning, began decades ago when balloonists would jump out and give a bottle to farmers to prevent them from attacking the balloon that had just landed on their property, Stamats said.
Stamats’s fascination with balloons is sometimes shared by community members who see the balloons flying above them.
“What’re you doing?” one child shouted from the ground, gaping at the balloon, on Statmats’s July 9 flight over the city.
“Just hanging out — what about you?” Stamats shouted back with a beaming smile.
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