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Light enough to lift off … almost

Thu., Sept. 2, 2004

More than two hours before dawn, pilot Val Faviccio is up, peeking outside, checking weather. Satisfied, she dresses and sits down for coffee in the predawn darkness.

She’s got paying customers who want to fly, a crew waiting to help and an 18-month-old daughter whom she’ll have to rouse.

For a commercial balloon pilot, nothing is simple except the balloon’s controls. Once aloft, she can control up and down only. The direction and speed of the flight is determined by the weather.

The volunteer crew, Al Metz, Ron Boles and Bill Libert, stretch the giant fabric bag, called the envelope, across the soccer field at North Idaho College. Faviccio, 45, of Coeur d’Alene, is still watching flags and tree leaves for any telltale flutter that could indicate trouble. Her passengers, a middle-aged husband and wife, watch in anticipation.

After assembling the basket structure, the crew coaxes a gas engine to life. A fan blows cold air into the bag that grows, one, two, three, four stories high, still lying on its side. Faviccio circles the billowing fabric, checking for folds or snags.

“I’m still not sure if we’re going to fly,” she tells her crew and passengers as the rising sun spreads an orange glow on the side of the balloon. Faviccio’s husband, Eric Hanson, releases a helium balloon to check winds. Everyone watches it drift northwest in the onshore breeze from Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Faviccio hits the trigger on the burners, sending a Batmobile jet of flame into the cavernous envelope. In less than a minute, the balloon lumbers upright and the commands come quick and staccato. “Grab that line!” “Al, I need you over here!” “Hold on, it’s getting light!”

But as the balloon gets light enough to lift off, Faviccio makes the hardest call. Not today, too windy.

If they launched, they might be blown into nearby buildings. Or they might not land safely.

As they pack up, Faviccio repeats an old adage of pilots. “I’d rather be down here wishing I was up there rather than up there wishing I was down here.”

Weather permitting, Faviccio will fly in Lake Coeur d’Alene BalloonFest, which includes events Friday through Monday. Twelve hot-air balloons will take to the skies, and visitors will be able to take tethered flights for $10 – subject to the weather.

“The important part is passenger and equipment safety, and I have never broken either one,” Faviccio says.

Faviccio is one of two Coeur d’Alene pilots in BalloonFest. The other, Erik Bogdanowicz, received his private pilot’s license just two weeks ago, but he’s been around balloons for 23 years.

“I started crewing when I was 12, and I was hooked,” said Bogdanowicz, 35.

Faviccio began crewing while living in Fort Collins, Colo. After six months of uneventful lessons in 1993, she received her commercial license, allowing her to take paying passengers. “It was like having a driver’s license and no car,” she said, so she plunked down $27,000 for a balloon that will carry up to four people.

After years in Colorado, where Faviccio worked in the building department for the city of Loveland, she and her husband moved to Coeur d’Alene, where he was raised.

She operates Adventures Aloft, which offers rides.


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