Falling Branch Looks Skyward

CHRISTIANSBURG — Hundreds of students at Falling Branch Elementary School got up close and personal with an example of the oldest-known successful human flight technology Thursday morning, as representatives from the ReMax real estate corporation unfurled and inflated a 70-foot tall hot air balloon and put on an unforgettable demonstration of the science behind the basics of balloon-based aeronautics.

Falling Branch principal Tara Grant, left, and physical education teacher Laura Kegley, right, ready themselves for liftoff as pilot Kevin Poppleman checks the propane engine. Photo by Aaron Atkins.

The students, many of which clad in colorful superhero costumes for an unrelated reason, jumped, clapped and cheered as pilot Kevin Poppleman and several assistants pumped air into the canvas canopy, then finished it off with a series of flamed blasts from the craft’s primary engine — a pair of propane burners suspended above the woven basket — shooting directional fireballs and causing the 57-foot wide balloon’s 97,000 square feet to lift into the air.

Tethered by long straps resembling seatbelts to bumper hitches on four vehicles, the balloon remained stationary as class after class of students came in close to surround the vehicle. Poppleman described the craft’s dimensions, its engine, and answered questions.

“Most people want to know two things — how do you steer it and how much does it cost,” Poppleman said. “Well, the first one — you don’t steer it. There are ways I can turn it to face different directions, by pulling on ropes and venting air out one side or the other, but that’s about it. As for cost — one of these things runs around $55,000, give or take.”

The vents he described also allow the pilot to control ascent and descent, opening and releasing heated air to lower, and closing to contain heated air to rise. A parachute vent at the top, when opened, makes for a rapid descent, but the standard way to return to solid ground is to allow the air inside the canvas cool on its own.

Pilot Kevin Poppleman shoots flame into the balloon’s canopy, heating the air inside and readying the craft for liftoff. Photo by Aaron Atkins.

“The kids always love it when we do this,” ReMax director of marketing Jonathan Zaremba remarked. “The company owns the largest fleet of hot air balloons in the world — over a hundred — and we’ve been going around to select schools for the last five years doing these demonstrations. They’re always a big hit.

“We do this to engage the kids in education, to give them a pretty strong visual to help them understand the science involved. It’s important for us to give back to the community. And it’s just a lot of fun.”

Principal Tara Grant and physical education teacher Laura Kegley were given the opportunity to go up in the balloon, if only while tethered at around 15 feet. The pair held on tightly at first, then loosened up. Grant even took out her cellphone and took photos of the students from the air.

The superhero costumes certainly added to the excitement of the atmosphere. Administrators and teachers urged the students to come in costume as a part of the school’s SUPER strategy, a way for the children to memorize and implement strategies as to how to approach the state’s Standards of Learning test.

Librarian Angel Purdue, who wore a “super reader” costume, complete with Wonder Woman wristbands, expounded.

“SOLs are hard to get excited for, and this is a way we can do that for the kids,” she said. “It’s a little creative way to get them jazzed up. They love to dress up, love seeing their teachers dressed up — it’s all a little silly, but a lot of fun for us and them.

“It was just coincidence we happened to be dressed up at the same time the balloon was here, but it just kind of worked out. Awesome to have all this rolled into one day. This’ll be one they remember for some time.”

By Aaron Atkins