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!