When a hot air balloon landed in Ruth Swann's field near Madison, Ala., she was intrigued. And then several more landed. Swann and her husband, Dan Fitzjarrald, were getting ready to leave on vacation, but postponed their trip to help the pilots gather their balloons and pack them up for their chase crews. That weekend, they found that balloon rides were being offered for $150 a person. "I told Dan to go try it," she said. "I was too cheap to go. He liked it." So they bought a balloon. That was 15 years ago. Swann and Fitzjarrald are now on their second balloon and will be at Callaway Gardens this weekend for the Ninth annual Sky High Hot Air Balloon Festival. They found out the hard way that for balloons, darker colors last longer. The first balloon was white and pink. "They go first from the UV rays," Swann said. "The fabric starts to deteriorate." Last weekend, they were in Fyffe, Ala., for the UFO Balloon Rally. "It's been really hot," Swann said. "We haven't flown since July 26. So this morning's flight was beautiful. We landed on the edge of a 200-acre watermelon patch. It was beautiful." The couple tries to fly every weekend at home in Madison, and participates in balloon rallies every year in Decatur, Ala., and Callaway Gardens, Helen, The Rock and Macon, in Georgia.
"We did go to France once for a balloon rally," Swann said. "It was bigger than Albuquerque. We've been there (in New Mexico), but we haven't flown there." Swann says Labor Day weekend at Callaway Gardens is one of their favorite rallies. "Last year, we had beautiful flights," she said. "There were a lot of low clouds and we had unusual winds. We went over the lake, made a splash and dash. It was beautiful. We landed at the back of the Gardens at the Pine Mountain airport. I love to go to Callaway. We bring our bikes and ride." Atypical vehicles
The couple converted their diesel truck and two diesel Mercedes cars to use oil from restaurants. "We get grease from this Japanese restaurant in town," she said. "Restaurants usually pay to get rid of it. So it's free for us." They use diesel fuel to start their vehicles and when the engine gets warmed up, they flip a switch and go to the restaurant oil. Just before they park the vehicle, they switch it back to diesel so that fuel is in the lines when they start it up the next time. "We've enjoyed using it," she said. With their pickup truck's 140-gallon tank, they can go up to 3,000 miles. When they're pulling their Airstream camper, they'll get 2,000 miles. "We just go up to a Chinese restaurant and ask if we can have their grease," Swann said with a laugh.
IF YOU GO
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What: The Ninth annual Sky High Hot Air Balloon Festival
When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
Where: Callaway Gardens, about 35 miles north of Columbus on Ga. 18
Tickets: $13; $6.50 for children, ages 6-12; free for children ages 5 and younger. Tax is additional. Half-price tickets before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday