Balloon inflates curiosity about science

In 1783, a duck, a sheep and a rooster became the first passengers to ever take flight in a hot-air balloon when a French scientist placed them in the basket, cut the tethers and watched them float peacefully above his head for 15 minutes.

In 2011 the inaugural passengers in the first-ever hot air balloon to land at Weddington Hills Elementary School included a principal and two assistant principals. They soared just as peacefully for two minutes as the entire student body watched from below, standing around the school's track.

"It's very tranquil. It's not this wild ride. It's very peaceful," said pilot Tom Lattin. Lattin brought the hot-air balloon, one of 120 in the RE/MAX firm's fleet, to the school as part of a lesson on weather for fifth-graders this month.

"It's always a more complicated subject," said fifth-grade teacher Sarah Scott, happy to have the unique tool for demonstrating weather conditions. She said she used the balloon example to explain why hot air rises how the wind fluctuates at various heights.

RE/MAX has used the balloons, which have been part of the company's logo for more than three decades, as an educational tool around the country for years. A local real estate agent whose son attends fifth grade at the school arranged the visit.

"It's so cool," said Anna Richards, 11, a fifth-grader who watched the balloon take her principals, teachers and even the school mascot, Whiskers, 25 feet above her head. Fifth-graders were later ushered into the gymnasium for a more detailed discussion on weather.

Each time the flame below the balloon erupted, students would gasp, then cheer, "Fire!"

Dozens of teachers lined up to take their turns in the balloon, each waving to their applauding class below.

For school Principal Janet Smith, it was the chance to fulfill a dream that had slipped through her fingers as a kid.

"I had the opportunity to go when I was a child," said Smith. "There was a balloonist who lived in our neighborhood."

On the one occasion he invited the children to ride, Smith and the other children scattered home to get permission from their parents.

"My parents weren't home, so I couldn't get permission," she said.

Smith was the first to climb into the basket that was set in the middle of the track behind the school.

Lattin, who travels to anywhere from five to 15 cities a week with the balloon, said he typically shows up at the site around 7 a.m. with just his pickup truck and a trailer that holds the balloon and basket, several pairs of heavy duty gloves and a thick pad of waiver forms. When he leaves, he always has to order more forms.

"The passion and affinity for balloons is pretty much universal," said Lattin. "Any age, anybody. People see a balloon, they pull over and take pictures."