Monday, December 21, 2009

It's Not Natural!

Did you know that hot air ballooning can alter the very physical laws of the Universe? Or at least push events toward one outcome or the other? It's true, and I just proved it this weekend.

Sunday morning down here in central Louisiana was a mite nippy, but it made for some beautiful flying. We've had a tremendous amount of rainfall in the last month to six weeks, so the ground has been awfully soggy where ever we go, and since this isn't my first rodeo I had the (surprising) forethought to bring my knee-high rubber boots along. I've had to wade into some mildly unpleasant places to help recover, and thought that with as much rainfall as we've had lately any field large enough to accommodate a comfortable balloon landing would also play host to a lot of standing water and mud, so I figured I was well ahead of the game.

Now Jim has his own ideas about laws both natural and man-made and ballooning. When driving the chase truck he's fully of the mind that Ballooning Rules apply. Ballooning Rules state pretty simply that where things like laws and so forth run counter to what we need to do to safely and accurately chase the balloon then those laws are temporarily suspended. It's a good rule, and we've only had to invoke it a few times. This past Sunday's flight was supposed to go up Saturday afternoon, and Jim had brought Tracy and I our Christmas presents--cunningly made wooden hot air balloon birdhouses. Attached to my present was a smaller one that he suggested I open before the flight.

Well, Jim's been doing this a lot longer than I have, so I opened it. What did he get me? A headlight. One of those clip-on LED lights that you can attach to the brim of your hat. "So," he told me, "this afternoon's flight doesn't become a night flight."

See, Jim Knows. He knows that whatever you prepare for won't happen. Have a good source of light? Evening flight won't end anywhere near dusk. Got brand new mud tires on the chase truck? We won't get near soft ground. Have a full compliment of tools? Zero chance of mechanical mishap. When I got into the truck Jim gestured to my boots and asked me if I was expecting water. I should have known then that I was wasting my time.

So there we were, nearing the end of the chase. Ski Lift, the other balloon in the morning's flight was down safe in a new subdivision, right in someone's side yard, and Skybird seemed too high to make it safely into the small cul-de-sac that ended the development.

Jim and I discussed it, and we both decided that he was going to pass over and land in the large open field that bordered the neighborhood. I slipped my hiking boots off and slipped on my rubber boots, certain I'd beaten the odds and that my feet would stay dry and warm and that I'd be the only comfortable one on the ride home.

Next thing I know Skybird is about twenty feet high off the road, literally right in front of the hood of the truck and descending and the red line comes over the side of the basket. The red line is a nylon strap much like those you see securing loads on 18 wheeler trailers, only this one is attached at one end by a thick steel carabiner to the basket and is used for, among other things, letting the ground crew haul the balloon down out of the air fast. Jim slowed, I jumped out and went galumphing up the road in my boots toward the gondola, seeing the end of the road and a lamp post straight ahead. I flung myself onto the edge of the basket, hooked my arms over it and tried to get traction--zero. Rubber boots do not make for excellent gripping on new asphalt. So there I was, skidding along with my feet making that weird rubber-dragging sound.

Stop we did, thankfully before encountering anything steel or otherwise unyielding and bemused neighbors started popping out of front and back doors to see what had happened to disrupt their Sunday morning ritual. While the cellular phones and cameras came out we went about the routine of taking things apart and repacking. I finally had opportunity to change back out of my completely dry knee-highs as well, but I'm thinking pretty seriously about leaving them in David's truck toolbox: I could get pretty spoiled to sidewalk landings in manicured subdivisions.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fall Festival at Temple Baptist Church in Ruston, LA

Halloween, October 31, 2009

This has to be THE worst group shot I've ever taken. It was completely out of focus, after all that flash-prep and carrying on my camera did, freaking them all out with strobe lights and what not. :(

Monday, October 26, 2009

Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

Same goes with being away from the balloon. :)

The Great Mississippi River Balloon Race in Natchez this year was almost a complete blow. Not a wash, because water played a very small part in it. No, a blow, because fronts pushing cold northern temps kept pushing through, keeping the wind well up beyond safe flying and keeping us all grounded. Absence. Knowing the balloon was out there in the trailer ready to go, needing just a break in the wind speed. It was tough. But sometimes when you wait patiently and quietly (or in my case impatiently and grumbling a lot) you get rewarded. This last weekend all the variables fell into place and we managed three flights in two days. Not a record I don't believe, but it was certainly a nice deep drink from a cup that has been sadly empty here of late.

Funnily enough one flight happened in Natchez. A lovely pair of ladies had met David at the festival and had arranged a flight for Sunday afternoon, after the festival had finished, but again the wind intervened, so Saturday found David and I driving back to Natchez. Alone this time, because the rest of the crew seemed to be elsewhere, on vacation or sick or otherwise disposed. Undaunted, and hoping that Corey, our Natchez-only crewman was feeling well enough to help after a bad bout with a sinus infection we pointed the truck eastward and made good time.

A truly odd thing happened there--we found a nice quiet spot off the main highway, sent up a PI* ball and watched it head distinctly back towards the highway and Wal-Mart. Driving back to Wal-Mart to meet our passengers and Corey we watched a child accidentally lose her brightly-coloured PI ball, and to our great and pained astonishment it went exactly the OPPOSITE way as the first balloon, released not three miles away. A 180 degree shift in winds over a three mile distance: it promised to be an interesting flight.

We weren't to be let down. A nice takeoff from very near the levee, a slow, graceful ascent, a chase lasting for all of perhaps ten or fifteen blocks at a very sedate pace and then suddenly Skybird and passengers became trapped. Sort of. The weather forecaster had said "light and variable winds" earlier in the day. "Light and variable" materialized as Skybird being effectively mired in a spot about two city blocks across. First she'd go one way for a few dozen yards, then reverse course and go back. Veer a little left, then veer a little right. This went on for quite some time, finally making me ask David if he'd decided to put up a mailbox and start housekeeping in that bit of sky.

Fortunately a little breeze sprang up before dark and pushed them away from the tangle of electrical lines they'd been hovering over and we managed a successful landing in someone's side yard. It's not every day you get ready for supper and a little TV and find a hot air balloon parking in your grass.

Sunday morning's flight was a repeat of the crew situation, sans Corey. David and I set up and launched our passengers, I chased. The flight was lovely and uneventful until landing. Not that it was bad landing, not at all. It was in a wide open field behind LSUA where we've been given gracious permission to land or take off. The problem arose when I approached the gate and found not a rusty bit of chain haphazardly looping it closed but a dirty and very sturdy looking Masterlock padlock on some new chain. Checking the other gate showed the same problem, and our recovery area was well behind that secure gate.

Couldn't find campus security to save my life, which is quite the opposite problem from what we usually have. Found no-one in the Ag Center offices. I could barely find a living soul on the campus, and no-one to help. I finally lucked up and found a groundskeeper in the security building who didn't have the key but did know of the 'secret' entrance to the farms: a shallow ditch we could cross to give us access to the turn rows, a shallow ditch whose location I've already forgotten as I promised this kindly gent I would.

A little careful driving along turnrows and such got us back to the passengers who had taken the opportunity to enjoy the gorgeous morning sunlight and cool temps, and a big breakfast at Leah's Pie Shop in Lecompte topped it off.

That evening we had an extra special passenger. Monica, one of our crewmembers had asked for and arranged a ride for her father, Buddy. I found him to be a classic old Southern gentleman--strong but restrained, talkative, very gracious and friendly to a fault. We patiently waited for the wind to die while Monica and I fretted that we'd not get to lift, but again patience pays dividends. We inflated, got Mr. Buddy and Monica aboard and they were up and climbing into the sky. A family friend rode with me in the truck to help spot, and Monica's brother followed us close behind.

I have to say it was an utterly beautiful evening for flying. Clouds filled the sky in long tatters, the setting sun painted everything rose and gold, and Skybird had a great flight into and then across a huge harvested field with superbly wide grassy turnrows, perfect for landing on. I was knocking on the door to the home I thought belonged to the landowners when the real landowner appeared, driving toward us from out of his field in his pickup. With a few very eloquent gestures he showed us where to enter the property and we got set up for a game of Catch. The balloon came in quick, we leaped on and got her stopped toot sweet, and Mr. Buddy almost hopped out of the basket with happiness.

We get all sorts of passengers when we fly--some quiet and dour, some exuberant, many in between. Mr. Buddy? As far as I could tell we'd just made his month. He was so very happy, had deeply enjoyed the silence that comes of floating along in the sky, had loved seeing the manicured grounds of LSUA and the fields surrounding it pass by underneath his feet, and had even enjoyed the landing. Gracious to a fault he was, and when I told him that it was a real pleasure to have been helping his flight take place it was with full sincerity. Like David has told me a few times before--it's moments like that which make the whole thing worthwhile. The tough chases, the sore muscles, the abrasions and the mud up to your armpits all fade away and all you can remember is that you made someone's dad very deeply happy.

There isn't a dollar figure for something like that, but if a strained muscle and some mud on my boots is on the price tag I'll happily pay it again.

* Pilot Information Balloon, a dark coloured 11" helium balloon released to gauge wind speed, direction and changes in direction as elevation changes. "PI ball" sounds ever so much more professional than saying "I'm going to send up a balloon."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Taking Off Is Always An Option. Landing Is Not.

Student flights. I know, you guys just live for this stuff, right? Well, this one has a couple of twists.

The Great Mississippi River Balloon Race in Natchez this last weekend was a wash. Or rather a blow, since the wind never wanted to drop below 15 knots or so. We managed one flight on Sunday morning, landed on a golf course and got the balloon soaking wet with dew. Monday afternoon my mentor emailed me around 2:30 and asked me if I wanted a student flight. The Sunday afternoon flight in Natchez got canceled and so the envelope was still pretty wet from Sunday morning. He needed to unpack and inflate it so that the heat of inflation would evaporate the dampness right off and giving me another student flight would kill two birds.

So immediately after work the 'weekday crew' joined him and myself in Lecompte, we found a really nice old man who had a lovely big side yard and we set up. David handed me the striker after we'd cold packed with the fan, gave me some basics again as to inflation, showed me the signals he'd give me to start or stop burning and let me at it. I sparked the pilot light into life, stuck the striker in my back pocket, picked the left upright up enough to set it on my left knee like he does, he killed the fan and I burned.

I actually managed to inflate it nicely up until the very last when a good big stiff wind came in and flattened her, and he took over since that's a VERY dangerous time, where the risk of burning the envelope is very high.

Once the initial struggle of setup was over I clambered in, gave her a little head and we were up and going. He let me get to about 500 feet (I tend to stay HIGH!) and said "Okay, do a touch and go in that field there, and don't bounce it. Just ONE touch." He knows me too well, knowing that I'd much rather approach a landing tentatively, in ten or eleven small landings leading up to the final one. I didn't actually stick that one, either. Didn't quite get her fully on the ground that is. I'm always leery of coming down too fast, so I over-burn and don't ever quite make it down.

Well, this went on a bit, he had me get low and do some contour flying in a flat field, then he had me fly up and contour along some trees. I was really genuinely getting the feel of it, which I didn't realise I'd lost so bad but I've not flown in three months. It was a really truly good feeling, very akin to the feeling I got when I realised I'd found the sweet spot between throttle, clutch and shifter on the bike, so that each shift was seamlessly smooth. I was really feeling how she was supposed to be flying, really FLYING her and not just riding along. That's when my glove brushed the toggle switch up on the burner handle area and turned the pilot light off.

There I was, blissfully unaware, gliding over the treetops in silent splendor until I squeezed the handle to burn a short burst and all I got was a "pfffffffffffffft" sound and some white vapour where there should have been a six foot tall gout of blue flame.

I panicked.

He stayed as cool as an alligator in deep water, however, which comes of having more hours logged piloting aircraft than I've had hot meals. My one point of pride is that I got my striker out and up to the pilot light tubes just as fast as he did. Problem being, 1) my striker came open and I couldn't get it together again and 2) there was no gas there to LIGHT. He told me in that loud/calm Instructor Voice: "Just fly the aircraft, I'll get this." I didn't see what I could do, really. Without fire I couldn't rise, and venting would put us in the branches so I sort of stared forward and waited. Oh, and quietly panicked.

He told me after I got home in an email that he'd learned twenty years ago to use Fire II (the extra boost/backup fire for emergency lift) as a pilot light in case the pilots would not light, but he'd never had to use it until just then. He twisted the Fire II valve open and suddenly we had a sputtering, blasting three foot tall flame of a pilot light. I squeezed the trigger and my heart returned with the sputtering roar of fire and heat and lift.

Just in time, too. We'd cleared the treetops but were coming down fast into a clearing. We hit pretty hard and did some bounce-drag stuff for a while. I nearly got my arse tossed overboard for my troubles too. My center of gravity at 6' 2" is higher than his and he's better at bracing for impacts than I am, but I hung on to the uprights like a baby monkey clinging to his momma and rode it out, burning every time we got clear of the ground, remembering that he'd told me NEVER to burn, to actually take my hand off the trigger when bouncing on the ground to prevent accidents. Well, we finally got back up and I settled down as the gondola swung back and forth like a pendulum, slowly settling back into vertical.

I was proud of myself--he told me that if we'd had a real emergency, rather than a self-inflicted one like I'd just done he'd have had me land with the Fire II in the field and be done with it, but since we knew what the problem was (he saw the toggle and flipped it back on just before we began bouncing) we'd go on. I was proud because I'd been about to ask him if we needed to land and stay put. Score a tiny one for the student. We flew on for a bit, me trying to generate enough spit to dampen the desert that was my mouth and in my nervousness I was climbing pretty high again, so he told me to vent, to get us low enough to cross the corner of a certain field using the prevailing wind down on the deck.

Now this is the tricky bit. When Skybird got her new material added on the folks there sold him on a pulley system for the red line that controls the vent at top. It's akin to power steering on a race car, however: while it makes the job of pulling the top out it also robs you of a good bit of feeling. In my nervousness and so forth I'd vented already but I wasn't sure that the top had come out. It was so 'soft' feeling that I thought I'd not pulled hard enough so I pulled again, and again. Each time losing heat, and lift. WAY too much lift. We lost a whole lot of lift and went into what Jim likes to call "a screaming descent."

I began burning when he realised I was trying to self-engineer another in-flight emergency for us and he started his insistent "Burnburnburnburn" order. We had time to recover but we were still descending awfully fast when we hit. Jarringly hard. Hard enough to unhook one of the three spring-loaded hooks that holds the burner in the frame. Hard enough that I felt it in my back teeth. Suddenly we were sitting flat on the ground and everywhere around me was blue, nothing but blue nylon settling around us in huge swaths almost to the ground.

I had just enough time to hear David say "Hang on!" before she popped up again. FAST.

And we started what I like to call a "BDS landing." BDS for "Bounce, Drag and Scream." We were dragged all across a rowed field, thumping and falling across each other, juddering and swinging and hitting again, up and down, back and forth. I was ready for this one tho, had my right arm looped around an upright and my left hand clenching another until I could get it free and we were off the ground long enough to burn, to inflate, to get us up off this forsaken violent rough ground!

And finally we did get back up, and swung madly back and forth like a pendulum for way too long.

But he took it like it was nothing at all, and I guess in a way it was. I mean, we were fine, just shaken up. No blood, no broken bones, and the aircraft was intact. I think I hit my hip on the aluminum lip of one of the cylinders, gave myself a nice goose egg, and my shoulder and upper arm are still sore as is my neck, but we were intact, and finally airborne again. Well, after that I was white knuckled and dry mouthed, but David was still as calm as milk. Astounding.

He talked me through a mediocre landing right next to a parking lot, and Richard and Susie and Monica got us secured and it was all good. The campus security guy came up while we walked Skybird the twenty or so feet to pavement and we took her down, no problems. While Cap'n Miller talked to the Thick Blue Line I went ahead and took...command, I guess. I did what he would do if he were free: set to completing the process of securing the balloon. I made sure the top was pulled up to the center ring, walked back to the gondola, wrapped my arms around the Nomex part of the throat, called Monica to get behind me to help keep the weight of the material off me and started squeezing.

I actually squeezed the whole thing out before David got to us, which I think made him a little proud; even as shaken as I was (and I WAS) I was still seeing to securing the aircraft. We talked a little bit then, he got a lot of good laughs out of the very curious crew, and I mostly stood there and smile sheepishly. We told them the condensed version of what had happened, and loaded the lot up.

He told me there and again in the truck and again when I was back at the parking lot getting my log book filled out that I'd done good, really good on the contour flying, that he could tell I'd really gotten the feel for the burn/pause/maintain process that keeps us at level flight, and that it was GOOD that we'd endured both of those events together, so that now I'd be familiar with what can and does happen.

He asked me several times if I was okay, and I assured him I was, that I was ready to go again if need be. I called Jim on the way home and told him the same thing, and he said the same thing also--that it was GOOD to get in trouble when you're training because those are the moments during which you really learn what to do. I've faced two serious problems now. Not common problems but problems that can and do crop up, and now I know how to alleviate both.

As for me, two days later? I'm sore, no question about it, but I'm ready to go again. I feel like the first time I dropped my motorcycle--I'm anguished over it, but I know I can't stop just because of it.

So. I know this--it's not dampened my enthusiasm at all. I'm ready to go again, would go right now if offered the chance. And like Jim said, I've not experienced all that can go wrong, not by any means, but I did get a good look at what can and does happen at times, and have learned a little of how to deal with it next time. David said the next morning that he was perfectly fine, that he'd learned "a long time ago" how to roll with those sorts of punches. I envy him that. But I'm glad I got my lumps, too. They'll help me remember. And one day I'll feel the same way--a BDS landing won't be anything worse than something to be endured, I'll know where to brace my feet and how to hang on so that I don't get brained by the burner.

Now all I can do is imagine how I'd be in my own balloon. What it'd be like to be up there alone, standing underneath High Hope, for instance. More and more I think like that. I guess I'm thinking toward my solo flight, and beyond. What I'm going to have to do, how I'll have to do all of it, not just most of it. How I'll be fully reliant on me, on my ability to keep it aloft and flying level and steering with the wind and all that. Looking for and choosing my landing spot, everything.

It's a terrifying feeling, but in a good way, like a mountain you want to climb, a mountain that you know can hurt you, could even kill you if you don't respect it, but if you can just get on top you'll never ever forget the view.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Crew Party!

Just a quick word since the photos say a thousand words: Crew Party at Capt'n David's house. Most (but not nearly all) of the folks who crew were there, there was food and 'ritas and more food, and then there were photos and reminiscing and stories retold and shared, videos, and companionship in the company of excellent friends.

It doesn't get any better than that.

On with the photos*!

Capt'n David laughing over an old photo of a much younger him. I guess they DID have cameras back then...

The first time I've ever seen Jim in anything but a baseball cap. Fancy!

(l to r) Crew Momma Joy, Treehopper (Paul,) Mrs. Treehoppper (Jessica,) David, and Corey, who made the arduous journey all the way from Natchez to be with us.

Treehopper and Sky

(l to r) David's head, Corey, Susie, Jim, Richard, Tracy, Joy, Jessica

I just have to say right up front that Crew Momma Joy makes the BEST huckleberry pie. If I lived under that roof I'd blow up so fast you'd have to tie a ground control line to me to keep me out of the trees.

* All but the last of the photos courtesy of Tracy, since I didn't get any that were nearly as good as hers.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pennington 2009

Another Pennington State Balloon Rally has flown and been packed away in its big canvas bag, ready for next year. I hate to see it go, but I'm proud to say I was a part of it this year, my first time as either a spectator OR a participant.

To start at the wrong end, to begin at the tail and work to the mouth--this morning, after we had flown our last flight, refueled for the last time at the fueling station and had gone back to the hotel to partake of one last complimentary breakfast, David, sitting at the head of the table, our father and mentor and friend performed a simple ceremony that he does at the end of every big festival or competition: he asked each of us around the table to relate our favourite moments from the days-long event.

Just like any event of this scale there are certain moments that stand out in my mind with if not crystal clarity then with a sharpness that will certainly last me for decades to come. Realising Saturday afternoon that the weather was going to prevent us from flying. Eating beignets in a little coffee shop off one of the main drags at 11 at night, our skin smelling of propane, the little cafe nearly packed with people. Watching the looks of utter wonder and astonishment on the faces and in the eyes of so many little children, looks mirrored in their parent's faces.

Each of us at the table had something different, some little moment or larger feeling that they related. Me, I wanted to tip my mind over and let the whole flood out, drown my friends and family in a cascade of images and words and inarticulate feelings.

I wanted to talk about how it looked to me and how I felt sitting in the chase truck watching the larger Skybird nudge and bump against a smaller, rounder balloon flown by a competitor as they both angled for the perfect approach to the target on Pennington Field, and the cheer that I couldn't help but release when I saw the bright pink beanbag leave Skybird's basket, spun and hurled by David toward the yellow "X" on the ground below.

Jostling For Position

I wanted to talk about what it felt like to look up in the sky as we held Skybird in place as her envelope filled, looking up and seeing dozens of giants gliding by overhead in near-silent splendor. Hugely round jellyfish drifting in currents of air, with tiny wicker baskets instead of stinging tentacles descending from their bellies. How I wanted to call to those passing, extolling them to "Wait! I want to join you!" And then how I could not help but whoop and cheer when I looked up and Skybird's blue and orange globe had joined that strange sea, fitting herself into the mass of bodies as naturally as a seal dives into the sea.

Perkins Rd

I wanted to tell about the sinking feeling I had when I saw a gaping tear in one panel of a complete stranger's balloon, and how I looked and looked as we passed to make certain that it could be repaired, that it might fly again, my heart torn between that stranger's need and our own balloon's need, approaching the ground.

A part of me was desperate to tell them how good I felt, learning how to refuel the tanks in Skybird's basket. Knowing full well it was a terribly dangerous thing (the attendants only allowed two persons from each balloon crew to enter the grounds, to minimize the risk of life should the store of propane ignite.) Learning the job, learning the dangers of handling a fluid that escapes into the air as a vapor so cold you cannot touch it with bare hands lest you be burned. Taking the responsibility for doing it right, and safely, having that responsibility placed in your hands by a teacher who knows better than you, who knows that to learn you have to do, and you have to make mistakes as you learn.

And then the child in me wanted to tell them that the jet of white propane vapor vented out of the tall thin exhaust pipes as we completed the refueling process made me think of whales breaching, blasting out air in a white plume.

A part of me too could have talked about my own role as teacher--squatting in the grass while swarms of little children with curiosity in their hearts and fire in their eyes pointed and asked and probed, desperate for knowledge. Talking to one stranger after another, answering questions about lift and size and wicker and when we'd be inflating and when we'd be racing and when would we be back? I wanted to talk about the Mexican gentleman who asked a constant stream of questions in rapid, heavily accented English who then, upon devouring my words poured them back out of his mouth in a liquid stream of Spanish for his wife, while his three sons climbed around and in and out of the basket asking their own questions. How good it felt to enlighten people about what we do, how fulfilling it was to know the answers to the questions they asked.

Of course a part of me wanted to talk about the competition, the sense of pride I felt every time I saw Skybird moving into position to toss a ring or scale a beanbag with it's trailing plastic tail at the target. I wanted to crow jubilant laughter, retelling this morning's misplaced toss: finding a competitor directly below us, between us and the target David decided to toss the balloon ONTO the other balloon, trying to make it slide down the slick nylon sides and perhaps land where it needed to be. How chagrined David looked when the yellow beanbag plopped dead center onto their top and stayed, and the childlike glee that appeared moments later, a little boy who has done something not terribly wrong but frightfully funny and has gotten away with it.

Two Targets

Naturally I wanted to tell them how proud I was to sit with the pilots during briefing. How at Natchez last year I stared into the open-sided tent at all those people listening to the briefing, feeling like an outsider, a 'less than.' Wondering what the presenter was saying, how I longed to be sitting there with them. How proud I was to sit there Saturday and Sunday morning beside my teacher, behind the paper "24" that was our assigned number for the festival. How it felt to know that I was the 'new guy,' the student pilot, wondering how many people would later find David in a quiet moment, pull him aside and ask who the guy with the moustache and the dorky grin was. And of course how it felt to walk back to the truck after the briefing, numbers and wind velocities and targets bouncing around my head as my feet longed to break into a run, eager to find our spot and launch.

And then there was the part of me that wanted to go on and on about how incredible it was to see the balloons flying out over the mirror of a still lake. How I'd heard it described a dozen times or more, how I'd seen the photos but never imagined how incredible it would look in person, from the vantage point of the waterfowl whose day we disturbed.

Red Relection

Watery Hot Air

Karen's Dream II In Mirror

To slip the surly bounds of Earth indeed.

The complete set of Pennington 2009 photos can be seen here.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pennington 2008 Skybird Balloon Card


Pennington . . . Photo


Pennington State Balloon Championships

Well, we may have been grounded yesterday due to inclement weather but that didn't stop us from making the Baton Rouge Advocate!

Read the entire article here.

Better yet, this morning we got up and about. A beautiful launch, a challenging chase through downtown Baton Rouge and the chance to get up close and personal to some very skilled flying by our pilot. Todays challenge included landing beanbags on two huge plastic "X"'s at two different targets. Some skilled flying brought Skybird in very close but a competitors balloon was directly UNDER her, which prevented a good aim at the first X.

The second target, however, very close to River Road and the LSU campus (geaux Tigers!) gave Cap'n David an excellent opportunity. A beautiful approach put Skybird, David and crewmemeber Roni right in line, and a good windup and toss put David and Skybird in fourth place for that competition. Places one through five were all carrying a monetary reward, so David was proud to be taking home some fuel money! A big open music festival field gave us a beatiful spot for a landing, and recovery was excellent, plus we got to enjoy the christening of some new balloonatics.

Keep hoping for good weather tonite and Sunday morning, and as time permits I'll keep updating. Plus, when I get back home and can download some photos we'll have some proof of some seriously skilled flying!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Skybird Returns

Skybird Returns (1)
Originally uploaded by Tracy Sasser
Welcome Home!

Monday, June 8, 2009


That's the lesson David taught me this Sunday morning during my third hot air balloon instruction flight. Equilibrium. It's all about the balance.

It's funny how many balloon piloting lessons have very powerful applications in real life. Have balloonists been holding out on us since the late 1700s? Did the Montgolfier's figure this all out and just nod their powdered wig-surmounted heads to each other and slip a sly wink? I'm starting to think so.

Last Sunday morning was a little scary, let's be honest here. It was my first inflation. It's one thing to climb into the basket, the 80,000 cubic feet of Skybird fully inflated and standing upright, teetering on the edge of slipping off into the air like a rather huge feather. It's entirely another thing to walk around the slowly inflating mass of High Hope (herself only 70,000 cubic feet or thereabouts) as the fan cold-packs her with outside air, climbing under the billowing nylon mass to tug and pull the wrinkles out of the side still lying on the ground. It's still another thing to know that as soon as the pilot instructor gives the signal you're going to climb into the rigging that holds the burner in place, put the uppermost mast against your back, straighten your legs a little bit and fire a huge propane burner into that mass of painfully thin nylon.

Sure enough, though, as inevitable as a sunrise the time came. The wrinkled folds of the envelope were all pulled straight, the huge rainbow mass that always strikes me visually as primarily yellow was as cold packed as it was going to get, and it was time. I threaded my six feet two inches into the wooden uprights, reached into the basket to flip the toggle switch for the pilot light, flipped the second toggle on the burner itself and clicked the sparker a few times. A tiny blue flame appeared, not even a finger length long, almost invisible in the tightly coiled pattern of the burner's upper body. A microscopic mirror image of the flame that fills the envelope with lift. I opened the valve on the propane bottle, David switched off the fan, I pressed my shoulders against the upright and straightened my legs, David lifted, said "Aim for the center and HOLD IT THERE" and I squeezed the trigger.


There really isn't a way to describe what happens next. Heck, for that matter all that last paragraph? I had to make that all up. I don't REMEMBER what happened, I just remember doing it. I wasn't thinking about it, not in a "Step one step two step three" sort of way. I knew what had to be done, I'd watched David do it many times. I just knew that if I slipped, if I let my gaze falter for a moment that burner would turn in my hand and I'd scorch a hole in the material big enough to park the truck in, AND possibly burn one of my friends very badly. So, I left my brain alone and did what I knew needed to be done. David had told me, I'd seen him many times before, I knew what to do so I did it.

Holding that wooden handle in my hand, feeling the vibration, the pressure as propane fired out of the burner nozzles at some 240 psi, seeing the flame and knowing in the back of my mind that the huge blue tongue there was around 30 MILLION's a powerful, scary thing.


The inflation went off without a hitch. The balloon filled, Jim held her from springing up too fast by holding fast to the crown line, and I held steady on the burner for what seemed an eternity as the whole thing stood up around me with the slow, stately grace of a fat man getting to his feet. Before I knew it High Hope wasn't a pile of yellow nylon on the ground but a balloon, full and round high above my head, and I was filling her with heat, lift, the power to slide ever so gently off the face of the jealous earth and into the open sky.


At some point I know the basket stood up and I'd stood on the edge of the basket for a moment, then slipped into the wicker's embrace and was getting ready to fly. I think I remember Joy, David's wife patting me on the shoulder telling me that it was a perfect inflation. I'm pretty certain I remember David passing the chase crew radio to me and me thinking "It's not for me this time, it's for Jim" and passing it along to him. I remember slipping the sparker into my back pocket, and the feel of the suede glove between my palm and the hard wooden handle. I remember firing the burner a few more times, slowly, each time testing the weight, feeling for the tipping point, testing earth's grasp on us.

After one such blast, the roar of the burner over my head, the heat washing down on me I felt a stir under my feet. Equilibrium. We were at the balance point, the point between "not-flying" and "flying." I don't know, but the feeling I got--I wonder if that's how new mothers feel when they first feel their infant stir in their womb. I knew it was near time, and moments later "Weight off" was called and we'd done it. We fell up into the sky.

I won't bore you with the flight details--the practice landings, the incredibly dry mouth I realised I had about halfway through the flight when David offered me a bottle of water. The sound of an invisible deer crashing through the woods under us. The multitude of little landings I made BEFORE I made it to the point that David had indicated and said "Now, land THERE" meaning that I should land there once, not hopscotch skip across twenty feet of field in eight-foot tall hops on my way there. I make for a very tentative pilot.

For me, though, it was enough for me that I'd done the process, from taking out parts and bits from the trailer to standing under the Promethean flame as we drifted out across the sky. What I will say is that I began to learn about equilibrium. About that perfect balance point, where just a little extra on one side or the other pushes the whole thing out of skew and you have to correct. You have to work to regain that state of grace. That feeling of flying. David knows it. That sense of being exactly where you need to be, right now. Equilibrium. In balance. Living in the now.

Third Student Flight

And now that I've felt it, brushed shoulders with it for just a moment before I overcorrected and bobbed high in the air again or undercorrected and hit the ground with a jolt?

I need more.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Which I think adequately describes the state of our blog, too! The long delay has many reasons, none of which we'll delve into here, but since we're on the subject of being becalmed:

One of the great joys of hot air ballooning is that each flight is different from every other flight in the same way that each day is unlike every other that has gone before. Oh, they all follow the same pattern in a general way but each is different. This past weekend we had a flight planned for the Saturday afternoon before Mother's Day. A young couple, parents and grandparents were in attendance as onlookers. Sadly for me, Jim, our incredibly competent Crewchief is halfway through Arkansas on his Harley and headed north on an extended bike tour, which left responsibility squarely on Cookie and I.

Well, we bucked up. Found our launch site, sent up another PI ball, reviewed the map, figured out which roads we'd be chasing on, and set up High Hope. The inflation went well, the passengers boarded and the launch went off without a hitch. That's about the last quiet minute I had.

You see, to begin with there simply weren't any roads near the intended flight path. Cookie and I ended up having to veer northwest of HH, then back northeast to the general landing area. The main sections of road we'd be getting into are heavily forested, too, so we lost line of sight very quickly, then radio contact shortly thereafter.

Now, I worry. It's what I'm good at, so I started. I know David is wildly competent, but being out of visual AND radio contact? Scary. So, after failing miserably to spot HH I finally called David on his cellular and got his whereabouts. Come to find out he was ahead of us a bit, but roughly where we thought he'd be.

As the hour wrapped up we began to worry. Not many inroads toward him, and still no sign of a huge yellow balloon. We kept driving in and out of roads, driveways and turnrows hoping for a sight, but nothing ever presented itself, and dusk was drawing close, as was the fuel limit onboard--I knew he'd be setting down soon, but I couldn't FIND him! Pretty sad stuff for the guy driving the chase truck.

Word soon came--High Hope was down safe. I'd stopped near where I thought the landing spot was, but several honks on the horn went unheard by David, and I couldn't hear the burner. He was further away than we thought. (I found out later that David wasn't just being mean, he had in fact been becalmed--the wind simply stopped, and instead of making it to the highway like he'd planned he had to put down at the only safe spot he had.)

I was about to venture a little gentle trespass into a huge field full of massive Texas Longhorn steers when a Yamaha Rhino ATV truck pulled up, filled with landowners. Seems they'd seen the flight land on their property (I was close, by several miles they told me, if he'd landed where they thought he had) and that it'd be tricky to get to them. Seems these nice folks own eight THOUSAND acres, and we'd landed in the midst of them. No roads, no easy access.

So, just to be sure they took Cookie away in one of the ATVs into the very pasture I was about to break-and-enter, and I sat and waited with two generations of the family, phoning back and forth to David. He'd had to walk the still-inflated balloon quite a ways across ankle-deep water mixed with knee-high briars but had the gondola and passengers safely on high ground and was headed for what he thought was a road.

Long story short (I know, too late!) I spent an hour, perhaps more trying to reassure the parents and grandparents that we'd not lost their kids. This in the midst of a night of that quality of dark that only the deep country can manage. We kept seeing headlights flicker in and out of the treeline, but never a sound. Come to find out the balloon wasn't but a few miles from where we'd finally stopped, but the route getting TO them was so torturous and twisted (following fencelines and paralleling natural barricades like deep creeks and a huge lake) that it took twenty minutes at a good safe (fast) speed on the ATV just to get to them. Cookie and company met David, then got to the balloon and rescued the passengers who were hunkered down in the basket swatting mosquitoe swarms with the flight manual. After an hour and a half I saw headlights and heard the burring of the ATV returning. The passengers (in good spirits) reunited with loved ones and went back homewards.

Not so us. We still had a recovery to attend to, and it was already 9 pm.

We followed the ATV and landowner back into the forest preserve that was their property. Twenty five careful minutes following in the truck, wending our way down dirt tracks, embankments and around massive creeks and sinkholes brought us to a retired rice paddy thick with mosquitoes and, we were told, over two hundred head of wild boar. We packed balloon and envelope up after a sweaty struggle through thick grass and biting bugs and locked up the trailer. After a brief confab with the landowner, David, against his better judgement turned the truck around off the embankment and through the standing water, as the landowner was certain our four-wheel drive truck could make it, instead of having David suffer backing truck and trailer up some fifty or sixty feet.

Naturally we got stuck. The heavy truck and equally heavy trailer managed to sink us up to the axles, and sadly the little ATV couldn't pull us free, so...another twenty minute ride back to civilization for the landowner, who drove back (another half hour) with a truly massive, two-story tall John Deere. Without headlights. How he managed to drive that monstrous thing through that winding pair of dirt ruts and barely visible trails back to us sans headlights is beyond me and a testiment to his night vision, but that's what it took.

The tractor made short work of getting the truck out (that's David there, directing the tractor back onto high land,) but during the daring Rhino rescue we'd unhooked the trailer, thinking the little ATV might be able to pull just the truck out. What it DID manage was to pull it just far enough forward that we couldn't get the trailer hooked up again. The tractor had to creep back into the water and, using a nylon tow strap David had in the truck the two of them tied the trailer's tongue to the forklift bars mounted to the front of the tractor and the most ginger excavation began. It would have been comical, were it not so late, were we not so exhausted and were the mosquitoes not so starving for our blood.

My writing this tells you we did finally escape, hale and hearty, but from the landing to the moment we closed the last gate behind us and touched solid asphalt took just over four hours. In eighteen years of flying, David related to us, THIS was the longest recovery in his almost seven hundred flights, including, he pointed out, the recovery wherein the local rescue services had to bring out a helicopter to help the chase crew locate the balloon.

Talk about a feather in my cap.

But, lesson learned. As Tolkien once said, not all who wander are lost, and best you learn to keep your feet when you walk out your front door to go hot-air ballooning--you never know where you're going to end up.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Hope And Faith

Flying with Skybird and her crew is never a dull event. There's always something to learn, some new experience, some unfamiliar bit of road (or field or pasture or landowner's back yard) to find out about and usually drive through.

When a flight is complete we always have the after-flight ceremony, and at some point David will ask the passenger(s) if they enjoyed the flight. So far as I know he's never gotten a negative answer to that question, but I do know that invariably he tells them some variation of the sentiment "Good, but we enjoyed it more." I'm starting to see the very deep truth of that as I continue to grow with this extended family of the air. No matter how much our passengers enjoyed themselves it still remains that we've been able to BRING them this experience; the joy, the sense of freedom, the beauty that is flight, and that makes the returns to us manifold.

This past Thursday we had a very special passenger aboard indeed. A passenger who has been trying to go up in a cross-country flight for a very long time, ever since she rode with us on a tethered flight at a church social she attended, and probably long before that evening. Her name is Hope, and while it's not polite to reveal a lady's age I will say that she's probably in the Top Ten of our Oldest Passengers. I think, however, and much more importantly after Thursday's flight she's been ranked Number 1 on our Most Special Passengers list.

Feb 12, 2009

Miss Hope, you see, has had severe cerebral palsy since she was born. I can only assume that she's been in a wheelchair all her life, and she couldn't talk to us with words, but such things don't seem to have stopped her from doing whatever she sets her mind to, and going up for a free flight in a hot air balloon was on her mind. Her family bought her the flight for Christmas and between one thing and another it didn't come together until this last Thursday.

The meet went as planned--a whole convoy of friends and family came along to witness this flight. The wind wanted to be uncooperative at first, but I could tell by the set of David's jaw that as long as he could keep his safety margin intact he was going to make this flight happen if he had to go it alone. Susie, Cookie, Jim and I were there though to make sure he had all the help he and Miss Hope needed to become airborne. A quick test-fit of Miss Hope's wheelchair, a careful arranging of pillows and such and a little quick work with a wrench on Miss Hope's chair rendered it small enough that it would fit inside the gondola. Granted it left just enough room for David and Miss Hope's caregiver Justin to sort of cram in, but that's all they needed!

One propane tank of Skybird's four had to be sacrificed for space but the lightening of the load just made it that much easier to get aloft, and get aloft they did, from a friendly landowner's pasture in Lecompte. The flight itself was one of the more lovely ones--clear skies almost the entire time, lots of fields and forest to fly over, and acres of yellow flowers dotting the landscape. The chase truck and us of the crew had a grand time watching the parade of cars follow us from point to point as we kept just ahead of Skybird, and we even garnered a few extras along the way, folks who couldn't help but notice the beautiful blue and white and orange sight!

The landing was one of the more picturesque David has performed, and actually took place in the same spot as the last time he impressed me with his flight skills. The approach occurred over the course of some fifty yards, with David holding the basket aloft less than a foot over the ground, drifting along like a giant blue and orange seagull-covered snowflake. It never ceases to amaze me what control he manages, and I could see by the joyous expressions on Justin and Miss Hope's faces that they were really enjoying the extra treat. David drifted the balloon carefully across the field like a Pasha in his palanquin, bringing along his passengers on a royal parade toward the eagerly awaiting arms and smiles of family and friends. He even managed to 'run over' a fire-ant mound with the corner of the gondola, just to put the icing on the cake!

Feb 12, 2009

The sunset was exceptionally beautiful as we performed the ceremony, and all too soon the family and friends bundled up and headed home. They left us crew with smiles and a deep sense of pride that we could bring such joy to folks, and that we could manage to overcome a few minor difficulties to carry along a wonderful lady whose needs were a little more special than those of other folks. I can't begin to imagine what she's had to overcome in her life, but I know this--the fact that we could in some small way bring some light and joy to her simply by being there to help her dream come true was worth any difficulties, any discomfort. She helped remind us that no matter how hard things might get, no matter how steep the path is, all you have to do is keep moving forward, keep your eye on the horizon and let your determination guide you.

I said earlier that she couldn't talk with words, but she could certainly talk with her eyes and her smile. There's no question about it--we all knew that she was feeling the same joy, the same freedom, the same sense of having done something exraordinary by going up in the balloon, feeling for just a moment that, as the famous poem says, we've slipped the surly bounds of Earth and touched the face of God. We know that feeling very well, and saw it alight and take fire in HER eyes. She's one of us now--an aeronaut, a wind-walker, a traveler with the birds.

Thank you, Miss Hope, for sharing your joy with us.

Photos of Miss Hope's flight can be found here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Earning Our Stripes, One Engagement At A Time

Remember that young couple I wrote about back in mid December of last year? I think they've earned the Most Patient Novice Balloonists Of The Year Award, if we gave out such a thing. Their sheer perseverance in the face of inclement weather and a pilot who refuses to take safety risks paid big dividends this last weekend.

Winter, or at least the colder months are more suited for ballooning. Naturally, hot air rises faster in cold, thick air, so the pilot gets more flight out of less fuel, and the passengers get more air time. The drawback to winter flying, beside the cold is the tricky weather.

That nice young couple that wanted to fly? I couldn't mention, then, that the young man who was buying the flight for his girlfriend wanted to use the opportunity to propose marriage to her! I have to tip my hat to him--he was forced to reschedule THREE TIMES. Every time we met for a flight the wind would either be just about gale force or would come up at the last moment and force the flight to be scrubbed. Safety is the operative word here--a high speed landing in a hot air balloon's basket will easily outweigh any pleasant feelings engendered from the engagement and the sparkling ring.

But, he was patient, and he persevered, both traits which will serve him well in married life. The fourth flight was the charm.

And almost didn't happen.

Wind again, you see. Lots of it. We met at the local Burger King, sent up a PI ball, got a heading and set out to the launch site. Upon arriving another PI ball was sent up, and we found that the wind direction had changed. Not just a few degrees but radically, causing us to all pile back in the truck and head for a whole different part of the country to launch from!

I guess the traveling time from Sommerville Airport to the Milton Family Christmas Tree Farm made the difference--the wind settled, we unloaded the gear and set to setting up. Skybird was just standing up good when the wind whipped up, and our couple got first-hand experience in helping wrangle a lively critter indeed, while yours truly at the ground control line was dragged back and forth across the ground. Again, perseverance paid off and we completed the inflation and had a clean launch into a beautiful, cloud-dappled evening sky. The chase crew recovered our gear and piled in, cameras snapping.

Engagement Flight Set on Flickr

Vulgar Wizard's Flickr set

The chase was fairly uneventful, taking place across terrain fairly familiar to us. We all cheered inside the truck's cab when David came on the radio and said, joyously "We have a proposal!" and the two photographers piled out at a perfectly-picked fly-over spot and snapped like mad.

The landing turned out to be the moment where we'd have to earn all those free post-flight breakfasts. Thus far as a ground crew we've had it pretty easy, to be quite frank. A few high-wind inflations, a few fast landings, a barked shin or a scratched finger. Nothing to test our mettle, I guess you could say. Well, this was our opportunity.

A certain sugar cane field has served in the past as an excellent landing spot. Lots of wide, clean turn rows, excellent road access and acre upon acre of open, flat terrain. This was to be our landing spot this evening, but unfortunately lots of rain the previous nights had turned it into a mud pit. We were forced almost immediately to put the truck in four-wheel drive just to get CLOSE to a good recovery spot, whereupon it became mired. My cohort and I leaped out and started talking, through Jim, to David to decide what we were going to do, where we'd recover, etc.

She and I ended up traipsing through LOTS of mud a hundred yards or so from the truck to the recovery spot. The landing itself was excellent, thanks to the efforts of our skilled pilot. The mud, however, refused to help, and being unable to get the truck to where we were (Jim fought it bravely long enough to get it unstuck and back to the highway before losing it for good in the sucking mud) we decided to carry her.

Now, we didn't carry her in the conventional sense. I'm sure the ride was more like a palanquin ride for our passengers and pilot--VW and I walked alongside while David kept Skybird about two feet off the ground. Each of us hauled on a handhold and pulled until she was moving along at about walking speed. It didn't help that we were next to a rodeo barn, so we had a whole herd of cowkids yelling and whooping at the sight--two people towing an 80' tall balloon across a muddy field while three others rode along in sun-setting splendor.

I'm not sure of the exact distance but I'm thinking we covered the better part of half a mile that evening, towing that huge orange and blue beast. The groom-to-be did an admirable job of operating the burner when David decided that our gasping and rattling was cause for him to debark and assist in the towing, and after an interminable time we got close enough to the highway to pull the top and let the envelope deflate.

A heck of a lot of very rewarding, VERY physical effort, a nice post-flight ceremony and a cold trip home in the dark wrapped the evening up, and I have to say it was memorable for more than one reason--while I personally haven't had to unpack every item in the gondola so we can lift it over a fence (apparently it's happened before) I did had to put a heck of a lot of effort into crewing that evening. Furthermore, we made an otherwise 'ordinary' balloon flight into an extra special one for two very nice folks, and it all built further pride in me in our team.

Bring it on, swamps and fences and tricky recoveries! I've earned my stripes!


All our best wishes for a long and successful marriage go out from the entire Skybird crew to our newly-engaged couple! May you have many long years of happiness ahead of you both!