Up early again today, but this was different. We had an appointment to fly over Albuquerque during a mass ascension at the Balloon Fiesta.
Actually, this was Helaine’s birthday gift to me. Though very apprehensive, Helaine decided she’d go too.
I’m glad to say she overcame her fears and had a great time in the air!
We were flying in a ‘small balloon.’ The wicker basket only had room for four plus the pilot. We’ve seen some that carried ten or more!
Our flying partners were Rachel and Roger Smith from Ft. Worth, TX. Married a year, and with Rachel clutching a new Canon Digital Rebel, they flew in just for this flight.
It was breezy as we walked out onto the field. Breeze and balloons don’t mix. At the edge of the field flags fluttered. The wind had to be at least 10 mph, maybe a little more.
Overhead were clouds. Yesterday the sky was a deep, pure blue. Today the blue appeared in patches. It was the perfect setup for a beautiful sunrise. The colors were just as they appear in this photo. Even the shaft of light is exactly what we saw.
We were supposed to leave at 7:00 AM, but not with the wind. The Balloon Fiesta organizers put a hold on takeoffs. In an event like this, safety has to be your only concern.
They were hopeful the wind would die down a bit. I wasn’t, so I called Connecticut and spoke to Matt Scott. He pulled up some computer data which showed the wind was already well above what was forecast.
We waited. I felt bad for the Smiths. Though Helaine and I had seen a full day of ballooning, Rachel and Roger might have to fly home with nothing!
A bit after 7:30, the word came. Today, we would fly! It was still a little breezy so the special shapes balloons, which are more difficult to control, would stay on the ground.
Our pilot, Al, pulled the cords starting two big gas powered fans. The balloon began to fill with air. It was environmental air and not buoyant. Then he lit the burners.
From cannisters in the basket’s corners, propane rushed to two gas jets. A long, slender, blue flame pushed into the envelope. The balloon began to stand.
Within a few seconds our hot air balloon looked like a hot air balloon. We got the signal and climbed in.
One of the coolest parts of the Balloon Fiesta is the up-close access. Anyone is allowed to walk the field and get close to the balloons… and they do.
I gave my card to a few people with nice cameras, asking if they’d take photos of our ascent. We’ll see. I don”t have high hopes.
The balloons are arranged in lines, one after another. Local volunteers, dressed like referees and referred to as “Zebras” act as air traffic controllers. With their guidance, one-by-one, the row ahead of us began to climb.
There was no turning back now. Our Zebra took a position a few dozen yards ahead of us, checked our flanks, turned back to us and raised her thumbs. Al turned on the jets. We were airborne.
A balloon climbs effortlessly. At first, its rise is startlingly rapid. As you get a little higher that sensation is gone.
You’re flying with the wind so there is no breeze on the passengers. I’ve flown five times now and have never experienced any bumpiness or turbulence. Mostly it’s quiet.
The only sound a balloon makes comes from the burst of flame applied every minute or so.
Looking around we could see ‘dusty patches’ below some clouds. That was rain and some of it was pretty close.
We began to lose altitude. Al picked out a spot that looked good for landing, but as we descended, the wind’s direction changed. He held the balloon aloft and searched for another spot.
We flew over a beautiful development of very expensive homes, on dirt roads, looking for a place to land. At a dry river bed we scraped the low brush… but Al decided this wasn’t his right landing spot.
He hit the gas.
Now we were flying at running speed, no higher than 50 feet above the ground. Landing spots were more difficult to find, though it really didn’t make any difference. We’d just fly until we found one.
We finally landed… on a road! The balloon tilted forward but then quickly righted itself. Someone popped out of our chase truck to stop traffic.
Unlike flying a ‘real’ airline, if you’re in a balloon, you help after landing. We gathered the balloon, cleared the road and drove back to the field.
Maybe it is possible to have a better flight, but I can’t see how. Helaine beamed. Not only had she overcome her fear, she had done so early enough to enjoy the flight.
We’ll spend the rest of the day doing nothing. Tomorrow we’re making a long drive: Albuquerque to Kayenta, Arizona. See you then.