CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. -- Cambridge Valley Balloon Festival balloonmeister Mark Donahue showed Cambridge Central Elementary School students how hot air balloons are inflated on Friday morning.
"Some of these kids never get to see a balloon, or to get up close like this and watch it inflate. A lot of families don't participate in the festival and kids don't get to go," said festival volunteer Pam Benkoski. "This is really educational for them as well. A lot of schools incorporate a unit about this in their science classes before the balloon fest."
The balloon Donahue uses for demonstrations is named "Spirit of Cambridge." He did the demonstration with the help of Rob Swinton, owner and pilot of the "Pinwheel" balloon.
To start, a fan blows cold air into the balloon to make the fabric expand. Then, little by little, propane is ignited to give off heat, which is trapped inside the balloon, forcing it to rise.
After filling the balloon with hot air on its side, the crew lifted the balloon upright with the straps on every which side. While keeping the basket grounded, Donahue and the balloon's crew took questions from students class by class.
"There are some very thought-provoking questions," Donahue said. "You can almost see the wheels spinning in their heads from kindergarten all the way through."
The students didn't get to see the balloon take off or see how it is piloted, so many were curious about what happens once the basket leaves the ground. "How do you drive it to where you want to go?" asked CCS third grader Nicholas Vellucci.
One of Pinwheel's crew members, Dave Bell, gave Vellucci's class a short science lesson in response. "Wind moves in different directions depending on how high off the ground you are. The pilot will try to find different air curves, and reach them by making the balloon go up or down (which is controlled by the amount of hot air released)."
Bell said he enjoys doing demonstrations for kids more than going to festivals themselves, particularly when students ask questions like "how fast can you go," or whether you can cook marshmallows on the open flame.
In response to the many children that complained about having a fear of heights, Donahue said, "You just have to look straight out at the mountains, not at the ground. My brother is afraid of heights too. He will ride in a balloon but not on a roller coaster."
Donahue has done an inflation demonstration every year at Cambridge Central School since the festival started. Donahue and Swinton did the same demonstration at Hoosick Falls Central Elementary School for the first time on Thursday.
"The kids here have grown up with it. Every year they see us here. In Hoosick Falls, surprisingly many of those kids have never seen a balloon before The noise down there: Hearing 600 kids screaming was incredible."
"The Spirit of Cambridge" is being sponsored by Pam and Rick Tinkham of Prudential Realtors during the balloon festival this weekend. "Pinwheel" is being sponsored by Country Gal's Cafe. For more information about Swinton, his other balloons or to inquire about flight rides, go to www.majesticballoonflights.com.
Visit http://www.cambridgenychamber.com/ for a full schedule of events for the balloon festival, which ends Sunday.
Contact Tom Momberg at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomMomberg