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.