HOT AIR BALLOONING ON THE EDGE, PART I: THE CHASE

This post is coming a bit after the fact, but I felt inspired to expand upon my short-lived but unforgettable experiences with hot air ballooning. I dabbled in this adventurous recreational activity several years ago, and I am so grateful that I did. But, I will most likely never do it again.

Hot air ballooning is not for everyone. I was initially attracted to the idea for the romance of it all, and in the years leading up to my first attempt, I found myself incorporating miniature hot air balloon motifs into my artwork. So, I felt that was a sign that I needed to just try my hand at it and make all of my hot air ballooning dreams a living reality. Also, I’m not afraid of heights, love beautiful landscapes, and have no trouble joining a bunch of random strangers whom I’ve never met before, to perform an activity in the name of memorable fun and life-expansion.

reflection

A hot air balloon reflection in the surface of placid lake water. It looks beautiful and amazing and peaceful and calm, but I was terrified. We were only several feet above the water and I felt very unsafe—even though, we were fine.

I joined a group that hot-air-ballooned on a regular basis, lead by a certified (this stuff is no joke people!) hot air balloon pilot who was as experienced and skilled in flying as he was passionate about his hobby. He ran this group very fairly and required that everyone needed to participate first in the ground crew “chasing” aspect of ballooning. Then, after chasing regularly and consistently, proving our dedication to the group, we were finally allowed to fly with him. Flights often cost hundreds of dollars and he had paying customers that he flew for, but he also manned additional flights just for fun, and these were the flights in which the crew was welcome to join (only three or four fit in a basket, so until we were chosen, we had to patiently wait our turn).

It was all a bit terrifying from start to finish, although I tend to be a scared-y cat when it comes to things like this. I love trying things and doing things, but a bit of anticipation anxiety always seems to accompany my adventures. I’ve been skiing since I was little, but never will I ever approach a ski lodge and/or a ski lift without a fair number of butterflies choking up my abdominal system. Still, our fervent pilot kept all of us on our toes, scared-y and non-scared-y cats alike. It’s actually a very dangerous kind of “sport?” and the equipment is all phenomenally expensive. To have laypeople putting their lives in your hands and potentially damaging your equipment because of sheer ignorance and inexperience, is all a bit risky. Therefore, he was quite persnickety when it came to making sure we were following all of his rules. And I suppose at 6:15 in the morning on a Saturday, it was a bit jarring to feel like I was back in grade school, trying to avoid getting scolded for messing up. However, as I said, our lives (I had to sign a waiver declaring that I would not hold him responsible if I died of hypothermia or got electrocuted by a telephone wire) were in his hands, and I preferred his uptight attitude over a more relaxed approach to something this intense.

Crewing was not as adventurous as flying, but still ever so fun (actually, not all of it was fun). The crew was responsible for setting up the apparatus for flight, which included: manning a gasoline powered industrial fan, standing literally in the line of fire as we held open the “envelope” in order to let it fill with gas, perfectly securing metal clips and locks and ropes and ties and contraptions, delicately unraveling the envelope across an open field without ripping it, and making sure everything is in place before flight. That was the less fun part of the whole thing. But the fun part for me was finally piling into a van with the other crew members and following—chasing—the balloon (there’s high-tech hot air balloon phone apps that help people do just this). The chasing was necessary because the pilot didn’t know ahead of time (it was impossible to know) where he was going to land the balloon, and it was the crew’s responsibility to be there (preferably before the balloon got there) so we could all jump out and assist.

Every once in a while, the balloon landed on a property that did not welcome visitors. Usually people were very nice and excited that a giant colorful balloon full of quirky strangers had just landed in their back yard. But for those who were not happy about it, the crew needed to reason with residents and try to persuade them to let the balloon land (sometimes the balloon had to take off again if the resident forbade us landing there, and then it became an issue of running out of fuel…eek!), and/or assist with packing up the balloon and getting it off of a person’s property as expeditiously as possible.

twister

Film still from the movie Twister, with Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton (R.I.P.)

Whenever I was part of the chasing crew, I always felt like I was Helen Hunt in the movie Twister, except we were chasing a force much more docile than tornadoes. Chasing was pretty fantastic actually and loads of fun. We had walkie-talkie communication and often had to think on our toes and make quick decisions. If the pilot decided to land the balloon in an open field in the middle of a farm, the crew had to find a way to get to that field, sometimes taking roundabout routes, backing into ditches, and trying to get there before the balloon arrived. Because once the basket touched the ground, it very often would bounce up and down a bit before it finally settled. Even though the balloon was deflating, it was still a MASSIVE piece of fabric FILLED with hot air. It wanted to go back up in the air, very badly, and it often dragged the basket (with the passengers in it) across the landscape, jarring the travelers and fighting gravity like a professional gravity fighter. So, it was helpful to have the crew there (at times, if the crew arrived just as the balloon touched down, we had to bolt out of the van and run as fast as possible across treacherous fields—I even had to scale a fence once! Okay, the fence was only about 4 feet high, but still, I was not emotionally prepared for that—to reach the basket in time) so we could all put our weight on the basket and keep it held down as the passengers attempted to strategically exit the moving vehicle.

The first flight I crewed for, my first night joining this group, the balloon landed in a muddy farm field. Normally, the pilot would try to land well before dark so the crew would not have to pack up the envelope and equipment in complete blindness. But on this night, he was having trouble finding a landing spot, and by the time he found one, the sun was basically down. So, we had to shine our truck lights on the scene of the crime so we could see what we were doing. All I remember is that there was mud everywhere. And then we all heard this insanely strange and wild animal sound that I personally had never heard before. It sounded like some kind of a mid-pitched squawk and it was SO loud, but I was too distracted to even give it much thought. Apparently, the farm owners of the field we landed in also had peacocks in their woods and kept them as pets. If you have never heard a peacock squawking at sundown, in the middle of Pennsylvania, standing in a muddy field behind someone’s house, packing up a ton of hot air balloon equipment, it’s really something to try the next time you have a chance. The farmers were gracious and kind, and even assisted us with our coordinating and packing. A week later, our pilot went back to the farmers and presented them with a large bottle of expensive champagne (he’s French), to thank them for letting us land on their property.

Good people and good times, the essence of hot air ballooning. Give it a try, if only once in your life.

peacock

This is not the peacock from that night, this is a peacock in a zoo in New Jersey. But any chance I have to display a photograph of a peacock, I capitalize. © Libby Saylor

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