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Fun flight launched young lawyer on path to world balloon title

When David Levin decided to take a break from the rigors of studying for the bar exam in 1975, he took a short flight in a hot air balloon. He had no idea it would lead to the World Hot Air Balloon Championship 10 years later. ``My first balloon trip was in Connecticut in a funky, homemade balloon,'' said Levin, who won the world championships in Battle Creek, Mich., this past July. ``It was fun, but I had no great aspirations as a balloonist.''

The next year Levin, a graduate of Boston University Law School, got together with a childhood friend and they decided to move to Colorado and open a resort.

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``I had no desire to practice law -- or for that matter, do anything indoors,'' Levin, now 37, said. ``At the time sky diving was my hobby, but when I got to Colorado, I found the nearest place to skydive was 100 miles away. So I learned how to fly a balloon.''

Levin estimates that less than 5 percent -- about 250 -- of all the balloon pilots in the United States are actively pursuing sanctioned racing events, which he started doing in 1977. He began entering local races while operating his resort in Colorado's San Luis Valley, but he did not really refine his racing skills until he joined a 10-city pro tour in 1979, a circuit that lasted three years.

``The pro tour was really fun because we had 25 of the best pilots in the country, a real go-for-it group,'' the New Jersey native said. ``There was some hard-core balloon racing on the tour.''

Levin finished in the top 10 at the national championships three of the past five years, but his first major victory was in the biennial world championships. That competition, a six-day test including nine flights, is a Convergent Navigational Trajectile Event (CNTE), with the winner determined not by time but by points. Pilots select a launch site within a specified distance from a ground target, then fly over it and drop a marker, the one landing nearest the target earning the most points.

``Picking the launch site is very important, because if you pick the wrong one, there's little you can do to make up for that,'' Levin said, adding that he picks a site by sending up dozens of toy helium balloons to determine prevailing wind patterns and speed.

A pilot can't ``steer'' a balloon but can navigate one if he knows the winds, moving his machine up and down by adjusting the amount of propane that heats the air.

``There's a lot involved in picking the right altitude; obviously, you listen to extensive meteorological reports before flying,'' said Levin, who always chooses to fly alone and leave his crew on the ground. ``You play the intermediate and low winds when you're approaching a target. The wind varies constantly, and navigating is all in the pilot's head. No one on the ground can help you.''

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Levin's balloon has only an altimeter, to measure altitude above sea level, and a variometer, a vertical speed indicator that reads the rate of climb or descent. No wind exists in the basket, but there are ways of measuring the wind below it, such as tossing out a little piece of paper. In races one also can view the other balloons and determine the wind by their speed and direction.

``In the second task [race] of the world championships I needed to go right, and I looked up and saw a friend above me going quickly to the right,'' Levin said. ``So I immediately got up there, got far enough to the right and won the race. When he [the friend] landed, I ran up and hugged him. He came in second.''

Another skill in winning a CNTE is releasing the marker, a four-ounce plastic bag with a six-foot streamer. Levin prefers to wind it up and hurl it at the target to minimize the draft caused by the streamer. Other pilots may prefer to just drop it or lob it over the side.

``I practiced throwing the marker for three or four years or I never would've won the world championship,'' he said. ``Oftentimes, I have not been the closest to the target, but I threw the marker closest.''

Levin does not limit his ballooning just to the hot air variety. He also pilots gas balloons, a less popular sport because it is more expensive and dangerous. In September he traveled to Geneva to compete in the famous Gordon Bennett Aeronatic Balloon Cup, a distance event in which the balloon that goes the farthest wins. Levin took off at 10:15 p.m. and landed in Marseille, France, 15 hours later. He decided to land rather than continue over the editerranean Sea.

``It was a spectacle, said Roberta Siegel, a friend of Levin's who served as part of his chase crew for that race. ``There were spotlights and lots of people cheering as the 13 balloons took off one at a time. And it was misty; it was magical.''

The longest gas balloon trip on record was just over 37 hours, and the longest journey was more than 5,200 miles. ``The longest gas ride I took was 22 hours,'' Levin said. ``You're ready to get out after that. It's a small basket.''

In 1977 Levin became the first man to fly a hot air balloon over the 14,110-foot Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs; later he soared to heights of 22,000 feet when he navigated over Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The world mark is 55,134 feet, set by Julian Nott in 1980.

Levin plans to compete in the 1986 North American championships in Canada and the national championships in Indianola, Iowa. He may also observe the European championships, which will be held in Austria at the site where he will be defending his world title in 1987.

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