JANESVILLE — Karen Lawton crossed one item off her bucket list earlier this month when she took her first hot air balloon ride.
The Dunbar woman did it, along with her sister and niece from out of state, to celebrate her 75th birthday.
"This is wonderful and a dream come true," she said of fulfilling her lifelong fantasy.
Lawton is one of many people who hire the Janesville Hot Air Balloon Co. for special occasions. It's the only business of its kind in Rock County.
They fly to celebrate anniversaries, engagements, birthdays and end of life, said Jim Bushelle, owner.
"End of life is probably about 40 percent" of local hot air balloon bookings, he said.
Bushelle started the company—which specializes in private two-person rides, rides for as many as six passengers and even rides for skydivers—in 2003.
The year-around, hour-long flights happen early mornings or late evenings when winds are light—3 mph or less at launch time and 6 mph or less throughout the flight—and are piloted by Federal Aviation Association-certified commercial balloon pilots and FAA-certified balloon flight instructors, including Bushelle. Chief Pilot Bushelle even has an airline transport pilot certificate.
Bushelle said his most unforgettable flight was when a woman declined a wedding proposal.
"For the remainder of the flight, it was pretty quiet," he said.
Bushelle ran into a power line last year when the wind shifted on landing, but nobody was hurt because the basket was just a foot above the ground.
Fortunately the balloon fabric sustained only minor damage.
"The FAA investigated and said I did everything correct," he said.
Bushelle, who is retired from General Motors and airline flying, piloted the hot air balloon 1.5 times per week on average in 2012 and expects that to increase to two times a week this year.
Bushelle hauls his 600-pound wicker basket, the 300-pound, 75-foot-long balloon and other necessary equipment in the back of his crew-cab Chevrolet pickup truck.
Crew chiefs Jeff Schmoldt and Terri Pratesi, both of Janesville, helped Bushelle pull the basket off the truck and onto a hydraulic lift earlier this month before they slid it into the tall, wet grass behind Jackson Elementary School just off Burbank Avenue.
They were preparing to launch upwind for Lawton's birthday ride, which would take her to altitudes up to 3,500 feet above the city.
Lawton even got to help inflate the balloon.
As she watched the gas-powered fan expand the brightly colored, silicone-coated nylon balloon, she hooted and hollered with intense excitement.
"Oh, boy! Whoo-eee!" she yelled above the noise.
"Since I was a young, married woman, we've followed balloon gatherings all over the Midwest. But this is the first opportunity to go up in one," she said, barely unable to contain her enthusiasm of knowing she'd soon be floating across the sky.
After the nearly half-hour setup, Bushelle radioed the Southern Wisconsin Airport control tower for take-off clearance.
As the balloon drifted upward and away, Lawton shouted "goodbye world!" and waved to those she left standing on the ground.
And with a whoosh, they drifted away.