Ballooning isn't for the faint of heart
Besides being a Cruising Fleet Captain for the Apollo Beach Sailing Squadron, where he docks his 34-foot sailing catamaran, he’s often caught kayaking down one of South County’s rivers or in the Bay.
Mostly, however, he’s figuring out where to take off in one of his four hot air balloons, the largest of which holds 1,005 pounds of air.
“Where you take-off determines where you’ll land,” he explained. “And I try to be courteous. I mean, I wouldn’t want to land in somebody’s vegetable field.”
Even when a landing spot is picked out, each flight has to have a back-up landing plan. Flyers have to know there’s safety elsewhere nearby if the planned spot can’t be used for some reason or another, he explained.
The determinations are made by how far and how fast the balloon will be flying; which is based on wind factors as well as the amount of fuel and air the balloon will hold.
Drew has always had a fascination with heights, from the time he was a child learning to walk a highwire from friends in the circus, to the year he bought his first airplane.
He says he felt the thrill of heights, he never stayed on the ground for long.
“I wanted to learn to fly planes in college so on Christmas break I took lessons and on spring break that same year I took the test for my pilot’s license,” he explained. “Then about 20 years ago I took my first balloon ride. I still have my pilot’s license and FCC rating to fly balloons as well.”
Having grown up in Miami, Drew has been in many phases of education from teaching high school to serving as Dean at the University of South Florida and Director of Telemedicine at the University of Florida.
I asked what a director of telemedicine does, never having heard the title before.
As it turns out, the now-retired 65-year-old designed and developed clinical systems that allow doctors around the world to hold virtual examinations with patients in faraway places as though they were in the same room. “This way, the best specialists for a particular case can be consulted,” he said.
Two-way video and audio are used, a lot of which is utilized in child abuse examinations, he added.
“I was sure the biggest nerd of the medical school,” he joked.
Drew has lived in the Bay area for more than 20 years now, having also lived in Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Sarasota, and has had ties to South County for the last seven of those years.
An active member of the Apollo Beach Sailing Squadron, he also acts as a Fleet Captain and occasionally teaches sailing classes.
He belongs to one community of balloonists with a couple of dozen pilots in Orlando and another group based in Tampa that has 10-12 active members.
“There are some commercial guys who fly daily but most of us do it as a very expensive hobby,” he said.
Sometimes, he flies people for benefits and charities.
All balloonists must be FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) certified and carry at least $1 million insurance, he said.
“It costs us an average of about $250 to put a balloon in the air,” he explained. “Fuel isn’t cheap.”
That’s why most commercial people need several passengers before they will agree to go up, he explained.
Drew has one gray balloon that’s not nearly as colorful as his other balloons but it’s way cheaper to run.
“I bought it in Germany and it uses hydrogen instead of heated oxygen, to fly,” he said. “And hydrogen is much cheaper, although it is extremely volatile in comparison.”
To fill the balloons, they are laid on their side and a propane gas burner heats the air going inside. There is equipment to let him know how much air is needed, and what temperature it should be, as the balance between the outside and air inside the balloon is what keeps (hot air balloons, not hydrogen) in flight, he said.
The air-filled portion of the balloon is called “the envelope” by balloonists because the man who invented this type of travel was a printer, and he thought the actual balloon part resembled an envelope because it held something inside, Drew said. “He started by flying ducks, chickens and goats in the baskets below the envelope before humans ever got a ride.”
The tradition of carrying a bottle of champagne, or other wine, goes back to the time some rural tribes thought the balloonists who landed near them were devils and went after them with pitchforks, Drew said. He has learned from his studies that old-time balloonists would plan about where they were going to land and find out what the traditional beverage was there, and took some of it with them to give the locals so they would know they came in friendship.
“You know,” he said as we neared the end of our interview. “There are fewer people licensed to fly gas balloons than are licensed to be astronauts.”