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."

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