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.