HILLSBOROUGH — While Ray Fournier's 9-to-5 job might pay the bills, it's his second job that allows him to live out his passion.
Fournier works at New England College in Henniker during the week, but on weekends, he's a hot-air balloon pilot and owner of What's Up Ballooning.
Fournier, along with his wife, Mary Ann, has become a part of many milestones in the lives of his customers. From birthdays to anniversaries to engagements, Fournier's job is to make sure they are celebrated in a big way.
“I've had weddings done in my balloons,” he said. “This is your experience of a lifetime.”
Fournier owns two balloons, called envelopes, and two baskets.
Typically, he flies only in the early morning.
“Mornings are predictable,” Fournier said. “Once the sun gets above 15 degrees, the ground gets heated,” which creates thermals, or air that is thinner than the air around it, making it more difficult to fly the balloon.
Fournier has to be both a pilot and an amateur meteorologist, but he doesn't mind.
“I've been fascinated by weather since I was a little kid,” he said.
Fournier offered a rare evening flight Friday for the Diven family, visiting the area on vacation. Brothers Peter and Jim arranged a flight for their mother, Jane, who celebrated her 80th birthday in November.
Whether it's a day or evening ride, Fournier's preparations for a one-hour flight begin days ahead of time.
Much of that preparation revolves around ever-changing weather conditions. Even a storm in another part of the country, like the recent tropical storm Debby in Florida, can have an effect.
“I've got to watch how that comes up the coast,” Fournier said.
Once it's determined the weather will cooperate, Fournier contacts his passengers to confirm the flight, reminds them of the dress code (long pants, no open-toes shoes) and checks to be sure no one flying has any health concerns.
Fournier will get the weather conditions right up until flight time, which can lead to some surprises.
For the Divens, the temperature and humidity set the weight limit on the flight; one family member would have to stay behind, and Jim's wife, Yvette, offered to let Jim and Peter take the ride with their mother.
Safety is one of Fournier's biggest concerns, and he said he's more apt to err on the side of caution.
“At any point, I can call the flight off,” he said.
Fournier enlists the help of his passengers to unroll the massive stretch of balloon and spread it out before it's filled.
Once the envelope is full, Fournier fires up the burner — which puts out more than 40 million BTU an hour — to get the balloon to stand upright so his passengers can climb aboard.
After a pre-trip inspection and group briefing, the flight is ready to leave.
In the meantime, Mary Ann is ready with the “chase vehicle.” It's her job to follow the route of the balloon, a task made much easier over the years with the aid of radios and cell phones. When the balloon lands, Mary Ann has the trailer ready to pack up the balloon.
Four tanks of propane, each holding 10 gallons, fuel the hourlong ride.
“The propane we use would heat your house for about a week,” he said.
Once in the air, Fournier said, he immediately starts to think about the best place to land the balloon. Over the years, he's made use of large landing spots, but he can land the balloon in a tight space if he needs to, as small as 20 square yards.
“Ideally, we want Kansas,” he joked.
The Divens' landing was ideal, “a 10!” said Fournier.
The Divens were impressed with their ride.
“I didn't have any idea what to expect,” said Peter Diven. “It was picturesque — not even like you were in the air at all.”
Jane Diven said the ride was just as she had imagined.
“It wasn't bumpy at all,” she said. “It was beautiful. I loved it.”
Fournier charges a fee for the ride, but that's not why he flies.
“I become a different person in the air,” he said. “What I like is the serenity. You can really get lost in it.”
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Kathy Remillard may be reached at email@example.com.