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 BTUs...it'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.
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.