LEWISTON — The basket lifted gently off the grass, sliding sideways, as a cheering crowd of upturned faces in Simard-Payne Memorial Park grew smaller.

Dick Varney stood in the middle of the basket, one gloved hand clamped on a lever, the other clutching a rope.

The basket rose quickly, moving southeast, brushing a treetop.

The yellow hot-air balloon, streaked with multicolored vertical stripes, followed six other balloons dotting the horizon.

Wisps of clouds stretched along a powder-blue sky. A soft breeze nudged the balloon, named Destiny, toward the city’s hinterlands.

“It doesn’t get much better than this,” Varney said before again pulling the lever that released a deafening blast. A ball of flame filled the round opening Varney peered up into.

Because balloons rely on the prevailing wind’s direction, charting a flight plan isn’t possible, Varney said.

“Every flight is different,” he said. “It’s like a brand-new flight. Like the first time we’ve been up in the air.”

That adds to the appeal, he said. He never gets bored by the ride. He’s given more than 500.

“This is so beautiful, I don’t want to stop. I’m having as much fun as you,” he told his passengers, mostly first-time riders.

His balloon holds 210 cubic feet of air; the basket suspended from its ropes accommodates up to a dozen riders, including Varney, the pilot. The rig is about twice the size of most balloons that show up for Lewiston’s annual Great Falls Balloon Festival, said his wife, Ellen.

She stayed on the ground in the chase van Friday morning, along with other family members who also serve as setup and retrieval crew for Varney’s Aerial Adventures, based near Worcester, Mass.

The basket and its 10 riders passed a church steeple to the right, then drifted over a wooded area.

A hill approached to the right, as Varney searched the terrain ahead for possible landing spots. A barn-shaped balloon had descended in a parking lot, apparently the first to land.

Varney’s rig began to lose altitude. He gave the balloon another blast of hot air, throwing off enough heat for the passengers to feel the warmth on their faces.

More than 15 minutes into the flight, Varney was asked where he planned to land. A grinning Varney shrugged.

“Honestly, I don’t have a clue,” he said, punctuating his answer with a laugh.

Varney has been piloting balloons since 1991, when he got his commercial license, needed to carry paying passengers.

On his business card, Varney explains how he got his start.

“After waiting nine years, Dick took his first balloon ride to overcome his fear of heights. He learned that he was not afraid of heights after all, but had a fear of falling.”

About 4 miles from the takeoff site, roughly 45 minutes later, Varney spotted a large rolling field in a secluded valley.

The basket dropped quickly, touched down once, hard, then rose again about 6 feet. Twice more, the basket touched the ground before staying down. Then it began to tip as the wind pushed the top of the balloon toward the other end of the field where high-voltage power lines marked the wooded perimeter.

“That’s a ‘sport’ landing,” Varney said with a laugh.

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