33 years aloft in hot air balloon

August 23, 2013

By KAITLYN NAPLES
STAFF WRITER
This weekend, Plainville Hot Air Balloon Festival-goers will be able to wander through dozens of hot-air balloons at Norton Park, and chat with many balloonists from all over the state, including Plainville resident Robert Zirpolo.
At the age of 25, Zirpolo launched his first balloon and hasn’t stopped since then. Now, 33 years later, he can say he has flown nearly all over the world, including Ireland, Australia, Canada, England, and said he still has many places he’d like to take his balloon.
When he started ballooning, Zirpolo said it wasn’t very expensive and it was a growing industry. Now, he said there “isn’t much growth” in the amount of younger people getting into ballooning, and just like everything else, costs keep going up on training, fuel, and more.
“People get driven away,” Zirpolo said, “but it is the kind of thing where you have to be very passionate about it. If you have a desire to balloon, you will make it work.”
Zirpolo is not only a balloonist, but is also an airplane pilot and gives lessons. By trade, he works in corporate aviation.
He got into ballooning when he lived in Maine and met someone who was a balloonist.
“I had a curiosity about it (so I pursued it), Zirpolo said. “I thought ‘You know, this is pretty interesting’ and it was so unique.”
When a tax return check came in the mail, Zirpolo spent it on a used hot-air balloon and went into the business. In September 1982, Zirpolo was at an air show in Maine where he was asked to launch his balloon.
“I told them I first wanted to go up in a plane to see the lay of the land” and while he was a passenger in that plane it ended up crashing into the woods. Luckily, Zirpolo and the pilot walked away from the crash, but because of a knee injury he could no longer work at his place of employment at that time, so he moved to Connecticut to stay with a friend.
Zirpolo said he started going up in the balloon in different areas around the state and “every time I’d start to land, parades of people would come out to watch.”
Zirpolo said he started seeing more and more people interested in the balloon and would frequently be asked to give rides, and eventually “a light bulb went off that there isn’t a lot of balloonists around here,” so that is when he created Berkshire Balloons.
“The industry was in its infancy down here,” he said, “so I made a successful business out of it.”
Zirpolo said the ballooning industry continued to grow and peaked in the mid- to late-1990s and has stayed level since. He said he started to realize the business couldn’t support him any longer, so he began working in corporate aviation, with the balloon business as a second job.
“I used to fly more than 100 times per year,” he said. “Now, I fly maybe 30 to 40 times” per year, but every time it is a new experience for him.
He said the “beauty of flying commercially is that you are usually flying with someone who has never done it before.”
He said as much as going up in a hot air balloon is a beautiful and thrilling experience, it is also an education on geography and distance.
Zirpolo takes off from a variety of places around the state, including Southington, Plainville, New Hartford, and other places in Litchfield County. One of the first thing he asks his passengers is “where do you live,” and they can usually float over the passengers’ home.
While up in the balloon, Zirpolo is able to tell his passengers exactly where they are flying over, which is not the case when you are flying in an airplane.
“You get to see things up close, and also have a 360 degree view,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a bad flight.”
Zirpolo said he has taken his balloon as high as 18,000 feet and has been clocked going as fast as 150 miles per hour, but that is not how every flight is. Flights take off early in the morning, when the wind is at its calmest, he said. Every time he lands on someone’s property “it is still a novelty.” He said everyone runs out of their house to see the balloon, which Zirpolo called “the bathrobe brigade” because it is usually early in the morning. He said there are very few times when homeowners are upset a balloon landed on their lawn. “As long as you land neatly, and don’t crush their gardens, most people are very open to it.”
Zirpolo has many favorite aspects about ballooning, but said it is unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced. And the best part for him is, “I get to go every time, I get to land every time, it’s like you’re doing your 60 to 90 minutes of standup.”
Zirpolo will be at the Plainville Fire Company’s Hot Air Balloon festival this weekend at Norton Park.
The festival will kick off on Friday, Aug. 23, and run until Sunday morning. The festival begins at 5 p.m. on Friday, with music beginning at 7 p.m. There will be food and craft vendors all weekend, and the balloons will be set up and ready for a balloon glow at dusk. The fireworks will begin at 9:15 p.m. on Friday as well, and music will go on until 10 p.m. The festival starts back up again at 5 a.m. Saturday morning with a balloon launch at 6 a.m. For more information on crafters and vending and the festival, visit the Plainville Fire Company’s website, www.plainvillefireco.com, as well as its Facebook page for updates and an updated schedule of events.
For more information about Berkshire Balloons, visit Zirpolo’s website at www.berkshireballoons. com.

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