Friday, November 28, 2008

A Weekend of Pride

(originally posted at my personal blog 10/20/2008)

I know at least one or two of you have been curious about the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race that I attended last weekend, and I'm sorry for holding off until today to write. I've been trying to mentally sort and catalog all the wonderful, scary, exciting things that happened, trying to put them into some sort of order, carefully cataloging all the astounding bits, knowing full well that when I sit to write it all down I'll miss about ten important points.

With that in mind... *g*

It was an extraordinary weekend. I've never gone to a hot air ballooning festival, much less been such an integral part of one. It took place in Natchez, MS, a very scenic little town right up against the Mighty Mississippi* and since there wasn't a single place big enough to put some 70 hot air balloons it took place all OVER Natchez.

Friday night was the Balloon Glow (my first!) which involved a number of balloons set up stationary (not flying) on each side of the river. As dark fell, at certain orchestrated times and as needed each pilot would fire their burners, which in the cool dark of the evening made the thin nylon skins of the envelopes glow like huge stained glass lightbulbs.

There was enough crew there (SkyBird has a lot of loyal followers!) that Vulgar Wizard and I could occasionally wander off throughout the weekend and take photos, which was a nice bit of lagniappe. Here's her set of photographs, and here's my complete set. Hope you enjoy!

One of the things that most stood out to me is the variety of chase vehicles and balloons and genuinely nice people that I saw. Crews showed up in everything from plain white passenger vans with home-welded steel platforms on the back to carry gondolas all the way up to what the pros called "Chase Commanders:" huge modified RVs decked out with sleeping quarters, air conditioners, blacked out windows, the works. Crews wore everything from Goodwill bargain jeans to colour-matched button-down Oxford shirts with sponsor patches and embroidered names and balloon emblems. Lots of four-wheel drive trucks with baskets simply stored in the back were there, and every type, shade and colour of balloon. There were corporate sponsored balloons (Curves had THREE, Budweiser had one, the POW balloon was there, and even two local dentists with bizarre tooth-themed balloons) and there were even a few professionals with racing balloons present.

Yes, racing balloons. I swear, you put two men together with the same kind of toy and they're gonna try to figure out a way to prove which is faster. I think there were four there out of possibly 70 that attended this year. Tall, spindle-shaped things, traveling almost eerily faster than the other graceful, full-bodied giants that filled the sky. Me, I'm old school I guess, like I am in most anything else--give me those beautiful, full-bodied round envelopes, moving around the sky like bubbles in a blue champagne flute.

I even got my moment in the sun. I had my first cross-country flight. No tethers, no limits to how high I wanted to go, nothing but David and I and SkyBird there in the sky, surrounded by like-minded aeronauts.

(Balloons jostling for position to drop their sandbag 'bomb' onto the big red "X" in the church parking lot. That's the Budweiser balloon right in the middle, and "Zephyrus" to the far right.)

I was under the impression that Natchez was Jim's time to fly. Always had been, and I thought always would be, so I'd given zero thought to burner time of my own. Saturday morning we'd gotten SkyBird inflated and upright and were waiting for further developments. She was straining gently at the weight of our bodies clinging to the edges of her basket, ready to be aloft and over the target. I knew it was almost time, could feel that lightness in the gondola that signals it's time to fly, and I knew that any moment David would get Jim on board, would say "Weight off" and we'd all step back and he'd be on his way to the first target-bombing flight when instead he said "Paul, get in."

Needless to say I didn't hesitate.

We took off into the cool, foggy morning and it was as magical as the first time I flew, back when I was just a paying passenger--quiet, eerily so, watching the huge round shadow we cast pass across trees and houses and cars. David found the breeze that gave him the heading he wanted and I snapped photos and gawped. After we both realised we were off course for the first target and therefore pretty well shot on the second David looked at me and said "Well, are you going to take pictures or are you going to fly?"

I'm not sure what I said, but the next thing I remember was David moving to one edge of the basket and saying, in that calm, low voice, words that will stay in my head forever: "The aircraft is yours." He showed me how to rest the red line over my right arm so I could feel it move as the envelope changed shape, and he gave me a few briefs about how we'd communicate over the roar of the burner. He showed me how to watch the horizon to tell if we were climbing or descending, and showed me how to anticipate the descent before it happened, so I could burn enough to keep us flying more or less level. I was flying SkyBird. I was flying a hot air balloon.

I was flying.

I still can't quite get my head around it. I was piloting a hot air balloon in a competitive environment. In the air, hundreds of feet up. Free flight. Even that Sunday afternoon during our after-festival ceremony when he introduced me to the gathered crew as "his student pilot" it hadn't quite sunk in.

I remember two years ago, around mid September blogging about my first hot air balloon trip. I remember Scott from Oregon telling me about his experience in the comments, warning me against making myself free labor to someone who would use me every chance he got. Well, Scott was right, but only partially. No one can take what I freely give, and I gave of my time.

I loved crewing, still do. I never once thought about asking David to make me a pilot, never considered saying "Hey, could you train me?" even though I knew he was a pilot instructor. It simply never occurred to me until one day I found myself standing in the center of the gondola holding the burner controls in my left hand. I still haven't officially "asked" David to train me, it's simply happened, as naturally as a seed sprouts when given sun and water and soil. Two years and one month later I own a Pilot's Logbook and am logging my flight hours, logging them toward being certified as a licensed pilot. It's reassuring to an old school boy like me that sometimes hard work and dedication pay off, and pay off big.

The flight was incredible, and I managed to punch us through the top ten feet or so of a tree (flying a hot air balloon is TOUGH!) toward the end, when I was desperately trying to integrate dozens of different sources of information and thereby earned my new nickname: "Treehopper." I even managed to pick out a landing spot and put the balloon down within a few hundred feet of that spot. Gently. I stood there by myself as volunteers who had happened along pulled her down, balanced myself in the gondola as it tipped onto it's side, and was awakened from my reverie when David barked "Don't just stand there like you're the pilot or something, get out there and help snake the balloon!"

I helped snake. I crewed with a light heart and feet that never quite touched the grass of the landing field.

I will say this, though: above all what stood out to me throughout the entire weekend was Crew. Us. The big grinning knot of sixteen or so of us that were there every morning at 6am and every evening at 4 for the Pilot Briefing, who enthusiastically showed up in cold pre-dawn dampness and in late afternoon sun, who spent most of the flying time sitting in the back or in the cab of a very fast-moving chase truck, watching eagerly for sign of OUR balloon, SkyBird, waiting for word on the radio. Our hearts swelled as one when the balloon cleared the treetops one morning and an unseen group of onlookers cheered, and we all grinned together when SkyBird leaped into the sky with what seemed boundless joy. The loyalty, the enthusiasm, the teamwork, it all made me so wildly proud to be there, to be a part of this fiercely loyal family that worked so well together.

* "Em eye crooked letter crooked letter eye, crooked letter crooked letter eye, humpback humpback eye." That's how I learned to spell it as a kid.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Happy Anniversary!

Some two hundred years ago the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph Michael and Jacques-Étienne were the first men ever to learn how to fly.

On 21 November, 1783 Pilâtre de Rosier and an army officer, François Laurent d'Arlandes became the first human beings to engage in free flight. The launch took place from the grounds of the Château de la Muette in the western outskirts of Paris. They flew about 3,000 feet above Paris for a distance of some five miles. They landed outside the city walls on the Butte-aux-Cailles.

This year Skybird and her crew, along with two other balloonists celebrated with an anniversary flight. The launch took place on the outskirts of Libuse, LA on a very chilly (30 degrees) morning. Cheers went up from the assembled ground and chase crews as Shadeaux Dancer, Ski Lift and Skybird leapt into the sky with barely any heat applied and we chased merrily across Pineville, across the Red River and through Alexandria en route to safe landings for all three balloons.

A massive (and legendary) annual celebration took place after the after-flight ceremonies.

Today I've taken the liberty of launching our blog, having already been handed the reins to the Bayou Balloon Adventures website. Hopefully as time goes on we'll add insights and posts from others of the ground crew, from our passengers, and from our pilot and Skybird's owner, David Miller. I'll share stories from my own experiences learning the fine art of hot air balloon piloting and hopefully I can entice stories from anyone and everyone we encounter on our flights.

For now we send out our fondest wishes for a continued speedy recover to Jim Crosser, our Groundcrew Chief and Head Bottle Washer. He just had his hip replaced (he likes to refer to it as "his new butt") and is doing marvelously well, even to the point of helping at the anniversary launch, though I doubt seriously we could have kept him away. The long and convoluted chase would have been a nightmare without him!

Check back with us soon, we're just beginning!