Thursday, September 6, 2012

New thing #42: Hot air ballooning

“Well, one day I went up in a balloon and the ropes got twisted, so that I couldn’t come down again. It went way up above the clouds, so far that a current of air struck it and carried it many, many miles away. For a day and a night I traveled through the air, and on the morning of the second day I awoke and found the balloon floating over a strange and beautiful country."                                                                 ― L. Frank Baum, Oz: The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz

If you ever get the opportunity to experience balloon flight, you might find yourself wishing to be in Professor Marvel's shoes. It's a unique adventure that begins when your pilot snaps a tracer up into the sky to check the wind, and ends with a traditional champagne toast after you land.

I often see Sky Adventures hot air balloons floating in the sky over Oxford, so I decided to book a ride with them. At first I thought I might be flying solo, but then my fearless friend Marie agreed to join me. It took three tries before the weather and our schedules aligned in ballooning harmony, but we finally got to meet the crew and our fellow passengers. Marie and I were assigned to the Mini Phee, the smallest of four balloons that would be lifting off that evening. One of the pilots released a small latex balloon into the sky to check the prevailing winds, which determines the launch site.  The boy scout camp in Metamora was chosen, so we headed there in a caravan of trucks and trailers and watched the crew set up. It was remarkable how quickly the baskets and frames were unloaded and assembled. The balloons, which were stored in large canvas bags inside the trailers, are unloaded by slowly driving the trailer ahead while crew members dole it out on the ground, foot by foot. A flame-retardant skirt is attached to the end of the balloon envelope and then strung onto the basket frame. Now came the really clever part: diesel-powered industrial fans were wheeled out and used to inflate the balloons. It was fascinating to see the long tubes of nylon grow into colorful elongated spheres while crew members held firmly onto the skirts. Once the balloons were fully inflated, the pilot crawled inside the basket.  His crew slowly tipped the basket upright while the pilot fired up the burners. This heated up the air enough to keep the envelope inflated until we were ready to board.

A small portable ladder makes climbing into the basket quite easy. In no time we were rising up into the air, more smoothly than any elevator. It's very peaceful but not as quiet as I expected. There is a steady hiss from the fuel line, and when the burner comes on it erupts in a noisy burst. It's also quite warm, most likely from the huge deadly plume of fire hovering just over your head. The balloon rotates slowly as you drift through the sky, so sometimes you see where you're going and sometimes you see where you've been. The view is phenomenal, so clear that we could see the Detroit skyline over 40 miles away, and so much better than peering through an airplane's dirty plexiglas window. I think anyone who rides a motorcycle can relate to the wonder of actually being able to see and taste and smell the scenery as it goes by.

We meandered over the countryside at an average speed of about 6.5 mph, alternating between rising up then gradually dipping low enough to let the trees brush the dust off the bottom of the basket. At our highest altitude we reached 1400 feet. Neither Marie nor I felt any fear, even when hanging out over the side of the basket to take pictures of our reflection in a lake, or trying to grab pinecones out of the treetops. Great Blue herons glided below us, deer paused in the woods before dashing under the trees, and livestock paced in their fields, perhaps unsettled by the strange sound of the balloon above them. Most of the ride was over rural countryside, where the house-to-chicken ration leaned heavily in favor of the chickens. We waved and called to people out working in their yards or sitting on their front porch enjoying the soft evening air.

After about 45 minutes the tanks ran low and it was time to land. Our pilot picked out a suitable landing place in an undeveloped double lot of a country club subdivision, about 10 miles from our lift off point. There is a vent at the top of the balloon that he can manipulate by pulling on a cord, and that helps him regulate our speed and loft. He told us to hold on and keep our knees springy in case the landing was rough, then expertly steered us towards a 'Chaser' who had followed us on the ground. When we got close enough, our Chaser reached up and guided the basket down to a smooth gentle landing. We climbed out of the basket and helped tip it on one side to be dismantled, then waited as the crew walked the length of the balloon, squeezing out the air and securing it with straps before rolling it up. We helped them return it to the canvas bag while carefully shooing away the many curious grasshoppers that inhabited the empty lot. Apparently a grasshopper trapped in the nylon of the balloon will eat its way out.

We drove back to our meeting point and joined the other balloonists to swap stories and pop open some champagne (or sparkling juice). We toasted our successful flights and agreed that they ended all too soon, and we should do it again. Maybe next time we'll get all the way to Oz.

1 comment:

  1. I actually like the information you gave in the great information for hot air balloonist. You have trained a pilot to fly of solo in a hot air balloon.

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