By David Gelles
Hundreds of feet above the ground, gliding the "Albuquerque Box" in the world's most colorful aircraft, I have no doubt why aviation has captured so many hearts. Next to me in the basket is Jonathan Wolfe, owner and pilot of the Gloria Caeli. While alert to any hazards such as telephone wires or radio towers, Wolfe seems at peace in the basket, clearly enjoying his duties as pilot. As the rising sun breaks the crest of the Sandia Mountains to the east, Wolfe breaks the silence, saying simply, "I love to be in the sky."
Indeed, flight is something Wolfe loves. "Having grown up in Albuquerque," he says, "I've always known about ballooning." Since 1971, when a ragtag group of balloonists staged a group ascension from a strip-mall parking lot, Albuquerque has been America's premier ballooning destination. This is in large part because of the famous "Albuquerque Box," an atmospheric phenomenon that causes wind to blow in predictably different directions at certain altitudes. The "Box" is so pronounced that pilots are able to navigate with considerable accuracy, and even back-track along their original course. "Usually you can't steer a balloon," says Wolfe, "but in Albuquerque, you can."
Wolfe has also been an active tie-dye artist for nearly a decade, and currently supports himself through the trade of his colorful clothing. One day, says Wolfe, "I just had this epiphany. I was making tapestries, and was excited by the scale and the symmetry. When I thought about how to expand, I naturally thought of balloons, thus changing my career from neuroscientist to balloonist." Indeed, as well as being an artists and balloonist, Wolfe has a P.H.D in neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania.
Unbeknownst to Wolfe, Greg Winker, a balloonist in Austin, had built a tie-dyed balloon in 1970. While embodying fundamentally the same idea as Wolfe's Gloria, Winker's balloon was created through a different process. It was actually an accident. Trying to get the balloon a solid color, Winker used immersion dying. But in order to fit the huge sheets of fabric into the dye vats, it had to be scrunched and wrinkled in such a way that when it emerged, it was tie-dyed. Now close friends, Wolfe and Winker plan to build and dye a balloon together in the summer of 2003.
Gloria, a FAA certified balloon, is the world's largest tie-dye, and was no accident. With 168 individually dyed spirals, Gloria was a labor of love that took Wolfe and a team of twenty friends six months to complete. Working out of Wolfe's living room during the summer of 2001, the floors covered with balloon fabric an buckets of dye, each spiral was coordinated by size, shape, and color. The panels of white fabric were first cut to shape, then dyed. Mistakes happened, and dozens had to be redone, but once all 168 spirals were completed, the balloon was finally sewn together.
Gloria was Wolfe's second foray into tie-dying a balloon. In 1995, he built Julia Dream, a smaller tie-dyed balloon with a simpler pattern. Named after the Julia set of fractals - another of Wolfe's obsessions - Julia was a "proof of concept prototype."
Along with Gloria, Julia, and Winker's 1970 balloon were on hand this October for the 31st Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. The AIBF, which attracts over 1,000,000 viewers during a week, is one of the premier ballooning events in the world. Piloting Gloria for nine flights, Wolfe participated in four Mass Ascensions and a Night Glow. "The Fiesta was tremendous," he said. "Hearing the crowd's positive feedback was validation for me as an artist, and as an Albuquerque native, hearing people cheer at takeoff was very special." Gloria did in fact receive an unusual amount of attention. Everyone at the Fiesta seemed to be aware of the tie-dyed balloon, and every inflation, takeoff, and landing drew enthusiastic spectators. All the while, Gloria's crew, clad in Wolfe's tie-dyed shirts, chatted with the crowd about the balloon and handed out thousands of information flyers.
On the last night of the Fiesta, the final Night Glow was blown out by strong winds. "It was agonizing," said Wolfe. "We were in the front row, right by the press, but we just couldn't inflate. It was too gusty."
Bad weather was fortunately not a problem earlier in the year, when Wolfe traveled to Chaellerault, France, for the 15th Wold Balloon Championships. For a calm and clear week, Wolfe, his fiancˇ Tanya, and a friend coasted Gloria over the French countryside. "The rolling hills, castles, rivers, and villages were a big difference from Albuquerque," Wolfe explained while showing slides from the trip. "It was good to represent the U.S. in a positive way. A lot of people abroad have a skewed image of America, and it was good to let a few people know that there are creative, peaceful Americans too."
Not surprisingly, the French were excited by Gloria. "The French," said Wolfe, "having invented balloons, have always looked at them as art." In the U.S., ballooning is largely driven by sport and commercial pursuits. But Wolfe sees himself as the man to introduce art balloons to America. This ambition led him to his next stop in Europe.
From France, Wolfe traveled to London, where he met with the Lindstrand Balloon company. After finalizing some technical issues, such as being able to place the load tape on the inside of the balloon, Wolfe signed on with Lindstrand. Lindstrand will supply Wolfe with precut white panels, which will be dyed and returned to the factory for assembly into a balloon. Lindstrand will also provide the basket, fuel system, instruments needed to deliver a FAA certified aircraft. Wolfe has already composed several unique tie-dye designs for his future balloons, and plans to sell them for about $35,000.
While Gloria is beautiful accomplishment in her own right, Wolfe hopes she is just the beginning. His plans include the creation of fractal-printed balloons, color modulated illumination of inflatable artworks, LaserBlimps, tie-dyed spinnaker sails, and a 100 foot tall flying Golden Buddha. "I want to be attracting people to ballooning who otherwise wouldn't be balloonists, and to expand ballooning to other types of pilots." So far, he is doing well. With a strong fan base in Albuquerque and a growing reputation abroad, Wolfe is poised to expand his vision, and bring a bit more color into aviation.
Wolfe's website: http://www.sky-dyes.com/