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Color the Skies brightens area's morning view

RIPON — Hundreds of people got up before dawn today to see a gaggle of brightly-colored hot air balloons rise and regally float toward Modesto.

Their bonus reward: A man dangling from a huge, grapelike cluster of smaller red, white and blue helium balloons. No kidding.

“It’s a pretty impressive sight,” said Escalon’s Chuck Bennett this morning, taking in the Fourth-of-July-like spirit of the second annual Color the Skies benefit for Children’s Hospital Central California.

Bennett also took in a big plate of pancakes, eggs and sausage. Others can, too, on Sunday by scooting out to Mistlin Sports Park. Balloons could lift off as early as 5:30 a.m.; the program ends at 1 p.m.

Other attractions include a magician, clown show and performances by YES Company and Michael Brian & Nonpareilyx.

But the decidedly biggest draw is the early-morning launch. An event program estimates a 7 a.m. ascension, but today’s first balloon lifted off to much applause at 6:49 a.m. before slowly drifting south toward Salida and Modesto. The others quickly followed and all were gone by 7.

“It’s got to be a little scary to have your behind hooked up to propane and the wind is going to take you wherever,” said Gerald Lumpkin of Turlock.

Ground-crew members had carefully filled the giant balloons with periodic hot-flame bursts from propane burners. Hundreds of onlookers chattered and mingled among the balloons on the damp turf, while others set up lawn chairs.

Rick Van Unen, whose Ripon propane company donates fuel, waved as his wife, Valerie, lifted off for her first flight with Modesto pilot Elise Osner.

“I got my fill of heights with the Marines in Vietnam,” he said, excusing himself from the experience.

Jessica Beukelman was thrilled by the loud FWOOSH of the burners. Rachel Van Duyn got chills when pilots in baskets detached from the earth. Lauren Van Till, who watched last year from a barn, loved it when the balloons went right over her head.

The trio of 11-year-old Ripon Christian classmates dragged their parents out of bed to be at the font of the action.

“It’s better this year,” said Rachel, who attended both years, “because of the guy with the balloons.”

That would be “special guest” John Ninomiya from San Diego, the only known experienced American cluster balloonist who was all the talk of today’s crowd.

Helpers inflated 75 automall-grade balloons with more than $1,000-worth of helium as he Velco-strapped a GPS unit to one thigh and an altimeter to the other. He climbed into a harness and soared away.

Valves on large water packs could be opened to allow Ninomiya to go higher. He uses a knife on a lanyard to cut away balloons one by one, bringing him back to earth.

“Who would be brave enough?” mused Mark Lizon of Modesto. “Or crazy enough?”

Ninomiya, curious to know if Curious George could really lift off with a bunch of balloons, started cluster ballooning 10 years ago and has completed more than 50 flights since.

“I’m glad my kids aren’t here,” Lizon continued. “They would want one. I’ll buy them a motorcycle but I won’t buy them a balloon; you fall, there are no brakes.”

Despite the festive air, accidents do happen. Eight days earlier, a mother and her adult daughter were killed when a hot air balloon caught fire in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Osner’s husband, George, who retired as Modesto’s planning manager in 2005, served as chase-vehicle driver to his wife’s balloon. Hot air balloons can’t exactly be steered to the best landing spots.

“In my book, the more dangerous part of the flight is driving on the freeway to go get them,” George Osner said.

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