SOMERS, N.Y. - Contrary to popular belief, the protagonist of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” does not, gasp!, travel in a hot air balloon.
You can thank Hollywood for coming up with the iconic symbol in the 1956 film of the same name starring English actor David Niven.
But step aside, Phileas Fogg; now two other adventurers have set out to circle the globe—or part of it, anyway—with love and gratitude, both welcome sentiments in these troubled times.
Somers resident Mike DeBellis and his ballooning bro Leandro Corradini of France recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $16,000 for their “Thank You Balloon” project.
The hot air balloon is to be built by Corradini, flown in Europe and then shipped here, where it will take flight in Somers and many other towns and cities across the U.S.
It will carry up to 1,000 messages of thankfulness printed on its nylon envelope.
The pair hopes seeing the colorful craft float serenely by will lift the spirits of folks on the ground—especially first responders, essential workers and others affected by the pandemic.
The nonprofit’s mission is undeniably very close to Corradini’s heart. The aviation entrepreneur was born and raised in Italy, the one-time global epicenter of the coronavirus crisis.
It’s important to DeBellis, too. The Somers High School grad’s brother and sister-in-law are both doctors in California where big spikes in the disease have been reported.
A believer in silver linings, DeBellis sees the situation as a chance for everyone to “take a deep breath” and thank those “all around them, and the people that protect them.”
According to DeBellis, the TYB stands 65 feet tall and holds 77,000 cubic feet of air. It can carry two to four people—depending on their combined weight and weather conditions.
Designed by Corradini, founder of the startup FlyDOO, the light sport balloon system is completely foldable, ultralight and super compact. Those features make it ideal for the TYB project because it doesn’t require a lot to get it from place to place, good news for the squadron of volunteer pilots who have signed up to fly it.
DeBellis, a 29-year-old self-proclaimed space nerd, is a digital marketer by trade, so handling the public relations part of the crowdfunding campaign is a breeze.
But building a hot air balloon from scratch? That’s another thing.
DeBellis didn’t even know how to sew before he met Paul Stumpf, a custom hot air balloon maker based in Vermont. Yet, in January, there he was in the Green Mountain State, stitching up one of his very own. It takes about 1,200 yards of material and 3 miles of thread to make a typical envelope.
DeBellis credited his mentor with sending him off on a new life journey.
“The whole sport of ballooning is really built on gratitude. You can’t get somewhere in ballooning without having another person there to help you along the way,” he said on FlyDOO Café, the project’s Kickstarter channel.
Those who donate to the project will have their “Thank You” messages emblazoned on the balloon. A large panel goes for $280; a smaller one, $33.
Although many of this year’s ballooning festivals have been deflated by the pandemic, Corradini and DeBellis hope to fly the TYB in 2021 at important venues such as GEMAB (Grand Est Mondial Air Balloons) in the Lorraine Regional Natural Park in northeastern France, and Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico.
MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE
DeBellis and Corradini aren’t planning to seek corporate sponsorship because they’d have to plaster the TYB with advertising. And would mean less space for the messages, which are kinda the entire point.
So the project simply won’t fly without the help of people like Corentin Francois, their very first official backer.
The 16-year-old from western France dedicated his TYB note to his grand-père, who is—not surprisingly—a hot air balloonist.
“I thought it was an original way to thank him for introducing me to the sport,” said the teen.
Here is his message, in his native tongue.
“Avec toi je fais de superbes decouvertes et je passe de bons moments. Pleins de bons souvenirs et de belles histoires nous rapprochent. Pour toutes ces raisons, je te decerne le titre de ‘Meilleur Grand Pere Aerostier de l’Univer.’ Merci grand-père.”
Loosely translated, it means: “With you I make great discoveries and have a great time. Good memories and great stories bring us together. For all these reasons, I award you the title of ‘Best Grandfather Balloonist in the Universe.’ Thank you grandfather.”
Corentin hasn’t learned to fly yet. While waiting to earn his pilot’s wings, he trains with various ground crews. Pilots may get lots of attention, but they can’t do much without these folks.
Balloons can’t be steered by other than changing altitudes to capture different wind currents. They, and the people in them, are literally at the whim of Mother Nature.
Preparing for a flight is truly a team effort.
Crew members lay the basket on its side, then lug over the big bag that stores the envelope. They secure it with lines and make sure the burners and propane tanks are working properly. After a large fan fills the balloon with heated air, the crew steadies the basket, helps passengers in and holds it down until it’s time to go.
The work doesn’t end there. A chase car keeps track of the balloon until it descends. Prior to GPS, they had to keep it in sight and then use an old-fashioned paper map to figure out which roads would get them to the landing spot.
Once it descends, the crew rushes in to pack things up.
The TYB crew also wants to see things through to the end.
Corradini was beyond excited when the Kickstarter campaign launched and messages started pouring in.
“It gives sense to what we did,” he said.
His project partner feels the same way.
“Once we got the messages, there’s no way we could let it fail,” said DeBellis.
To donate, write a thank-you message, sign up as a pilot or volunteer, visit https://www.thankyouballoon.org/