The Wrath of Grapes
Did I mention that I don’t like check rides? I know they are necessary, for there has to be some way to prove one’s proficiency in flight before being turned lose in the sky. The next worse thing to the check ride itself is waiting to have it. You can think it and rethink it, fly it in your head, review emergency procedures, and just plain work yourself into a tailspin, (sorry), worrying about it. At least I always do. Except this time. I can not count on all my fingers and toes how many check rides I have had to endure in my flying career. For some reason, this one was different. Make no mistake, I had my concerns, but for some reason I just didn’t agonize over it like in the past. Maybe it was because I was just tired of waiting. I had waited two months to get to Turkey in anticipation of flying the very big balloons. I had spent one whole month in country waiting to take my first basket full of passengers from all over the world for their great hot air balloon adventure in Cappadocia. And I had waited all my life for this adventure of mine, this one, here in Turkey, the one I had all but given up on. I was just ready.
The flight check itself is preceeded by about fours hours of “orientation” in a class room. These four hours were spent one on one with a Turkish flight instructor named Murat. By the way if you forget someone’s name here in Turkey, just call them Murat or Mehmet and you’ll have about an 80% chance of getting it right. Murat is what you would expect from someone in his position. A rugged looking man of medium height, (standard Turkish), very short dark hair, and a full beard, but cut very short. He looks like an experienced , no nonsense, all business, professional pilot…that could swallow you whole if you ever gave him a wrong answer. The kind of face that looked like it would crack if there had been anything other than seriousness projected on it. But I was determined not to be intimidated by him or anyone else at this point. Turns out, he is a very nice gentleman that just wanted to make sure that I got the information I needed to safely fly the very big balloons in Cappadocia. There was one minor problem. His English was just a tad bit better than my Turkish. But because of his patience and my determination we managed to get through the 4 hours with me getting the information he wanted me to have and I surely needed.
He told me to come back the next day and be prepared for a written exam covering what we had just discussed, plus everything possible in the Cameron flight manual from loading charts, aircraft limitations, normal and emergency procedures. The next day I showed up at the appointed time, but as usual I ended up waiting an hour for Murat to arrive. (Those of you who know me, will know there is only one thing I can not stand more than someone being late…me being late!) This was no standard, out the can exam with multiple choice or true/false answers. No sir, not even close. This was 10 questions, dictated by a person who was certain of what he wanted to ask, but not sure he was asking it so that I would understand. Questions that required some thought, not just memorized statistics. Discussion was required. A half hour and four scribbled pages later, I laid my pencil down and let out a silent sigh of relief. I was pretty sure that if I had understood the question correctly, then I was pretty sure I knew the answers. I found Murat in the next room looking at his laptop. I stood there for what seemed like several minutes before he looked up. I told him I was finished, and was hoping he would check my answers right then and there and confirm my suspected knowledge. But instead, he said, “flight check tomorrow morning, 5:15.” I could not stand it. I asked him if he was going to check my test. I think I saw a brief hint of a smile underneath all that formality as he just said, “later”, and turned his attention back to his laptop. I just picked up my hat and eased on out the door.
The next morning, Mehmet dropped me off at 5:10 at the THK launch area where I would take my check flight. I was thankful that I had managed to get there on time because Mehmet usually runs anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes late, for everything. He dropped me off because our Spanish pilot, Sancho had a flight and was launching from a different location. I waited for 20 minutes before anyone from THK showed up. But when they came, it was like an invasion. Three large trucks carrying crew and pulling trailers, followed by several cars carrying pilots. They all began to disembark and started unloading and setting up. I spotted Murat and walked over to get started. I did not know which balloon I was suppose to be using so I asked Murat. He pointed to one and said, “you will be flying the 105 and here is your check pilot….(can you guess?), Murat!
This Murat was even more stoic than the first, but without the facial hair. He was larger, but of course, about the same height. And I swear when I first laid eyes on him I said to myself, “Oh my God, it’s SHREK!” He just had that look, the only thing missing was those shreky ears. Otherwise, a spitting image, with the absence of the green skin, of course. Thank goodness.
I set about helping the crew ready the balloon for flight. As best I could. I had never flown a Lindstrum 105. I had never flown a balloon with three burners. I had never flown a balloon with turning vents. I had never flown with Shrek. OK, I was getting a little intimidated now. I managed to get thorough the preparation with some gentle help from the Turkish crew. The whole while, under the big watchful eyes of Murat #2. He watched from a few feet distant, smoking the whole time. As far as I can tell, every male above the age of 15 in Turkey smokes. A lot. The American tobacco companies need not worry. If every single American quit smoking today, it would be a very small blip on their profits. The Turks will keep them in business. After a good cold pack, I put the heat to the big 105 and watched it come to life. This was the moment I had been waiting for, burner time. It felt good. I wasn’t nervous, For some reason at that moment, something clicked in my head. I did not do it on purpose, it just happened. Instead of that old familiar case of check ride nerves flooding my mind and body, a strange sense of calm came over me. I realized that I knew what I was doing, it’s what I wanted to do, it’s what I have been waiting to do, and by God I’m just gonna do it and enjoy the ride! And I did. It was one of the most relaxed and fun flights I have ever flown. Simply amazing. I’m not saying it was uneventful by any means.
My check pilot put out his cigarette and climbed in the basket with me. He indicated he was ready to go not by words but by merely pointing one finger in an upward direction. I had already had a discussion with the crew chief about communications during the flight. Again a problem. But we managed to agree on the importance of “upside clear” so that I knew it was safe to climb. As the 105 gently left the ground, Murat turned to me, put his big finger in his chest, and said in near perfect English, “No English”. I just could not resist. I jammed my thumb into my chest, smiled the biggest smile I could and said, “that’s OK, no Turkish!” All the while I am taking in the fact that I am finally flying a balloon over the magnificent landscape in the Goreme Valley of south central Turkey. I had watched the videos dozens of times. I even rode with Sancho a couple of times. But now it was my turn. It felt good. The giant rock formations glided silently underneath the basket as we drifted slowly down the valley. Murat held up three fingers, and then pointed them toward the ground below. I knew he wanted me to land three times as part of the requirements of the flight. I picked out a spot down wind and pointed it out to Murat. He shook his head, yes, and I set up an approach and set the basket gently onto the little trail I was aiming for. He pointed up and off we went again in search of landing #2. In just a few minutes I saw Murat pointing toward something on the ground and heard him say, “fox!” I could not have been more happy. Sure enough right below us was a silver fox making his way around a pile of rocks and into some tall grass. I knew then I had it made, for Mehmet had told me early on that seeing a fox during flight meant good luck and a good landing. On the other hand, seeing a rabbit would produce the opposite result.
I nailed the second landing dead on. This was getting ridicously easy. Then I saw the dang rabbit. Looking up at me, and I’m sure smiling a dirty little rabbit smile. He knew he had me, as he turned his big white tail and hopped away, leaving me to my “unlucky” fate. I tried not to think about it, I really did. But if your going to believe the fox side of the luck, then you pretty much have to go along with the rabbit side too.
Murat pointed his bilingual finger upwards, moving it continuously in that direction meaning he wanted to go high. Up to this point we had pretty much been contour flying around the rock formations. I climbed to about 900 feet above the valley, (the further away from that pesky rabbit the better), leveled off and took in the view. And it was spectacular. From altitude you can see that there is not just one valley, but a series of valleys or fingers within the larger one. The rock formations define the distinct walls that confine Rose Valley, Red Valley, Pigeon Valley, Love Valley, Zelve Valley, and Kilicar Valley. Each one of them spitting out hot air balloons like a pin ball machine in slow motion. It was so breathtaking that I almost forgot about the sinister hare. After all, what possible effect could a silly rabbit have on the outcome of my wonderful balloon flight? The answer slowly unfolded right in front of me. Murat had indicated earlier that we would do a final landing on the other side of Love Valley, along with a dozen or so other balloons, including the one Sancho was flying. I was maintaining the high altitude because it was taking us right where we wanted to go. Then with no indication why, the finger pointed straight down and was accompanied by, “Now!” OK..I can do this from 900 feet. I vented the big balloon, and started a rate of decent that was comfortable. I also reached up and grabbed the green turning vent line for the first time, and thus began a gentle turn to the right, and at the same time, my slow journey toward the coveted membership into the Royal Order of the Calloused Pinky Society. Life is good and I am living it. Except, the rabbit had other plans. It started to become obvious that I would not make the small intended landing area as planned. The wind mysteriously picked up as I approached the field and rushed me past any hope of gracefully and safely landing there. So I prepared to abort the approach. But when Murat saw that I intended to abort, he suddenly became very animated, (remember…Shrek?) He became visibly agitated and mustered a very loud, “no, no, no….land now!”
One of the things that Murat #1 had to tell me during our little visit was the importance of landowner relations in the valley. There are no big farms in the valley, but it is literally dotted with hundreds of small individual plots of cultivated crops. All kinds of crops. There are squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, beans, peas, greens, and most important all, of course grapes. All the other stuff is seasonal and is replanted every year. Not so grapes. Grape vines have a ancestry all their own and can be passed down through generations of growers. These plants, therefore, have great sentimental value as well as the money factor. A great deal of the grapes grown in this valley are harvested and turned into some of the finest wine in all of Turkey….(Solomon’s Wine Hause). Therefore, Murat #1 was especially emphatic…”do NOT damage the grape vines! He went out of his way to make me understand that nothing could get me in trouble quicker than messing with the grapes. Well, thanks to my friend the rabbit, I was on a sure fire collision course headed straight for trouble. Just downwind from my intended landing spot was a nice little vineyard. It did not appear to be that old, maybe the vines were only 10-15 years old. But they had been well cared for, loved and nurtured into strong healthy plants. In years to come, these very grape vines would be capable of producing world class wine. If they survived my aerial attack, that is. I was headed straight into the plants, all the while Shrek insisting I continue to land, and now! So I did the best I could. I skimmed the top of one hearty vine, that thankfully did not break. I sat the basket down hard just beyond the vine but the finely cultivated soil between the plants was no match for the 105,000 cubic foot balloon. The heavy basket cut through the soil like butter and slid right up to and jammed up against the next plant in line, where it came to a stop. The base of the vine was skinned up and the whole plant itself was listing to the west. My heart sank as I continued to try and keep the balloon stabilized to avoid further damage from the basket trying to rotate in the wind. My once in a lifetime adventure of flying very big balloons in Turkey flashed before my eyes. I could now see the small clumps of tiny green grapes hanging on for their very lives as they remained precariously attached to the damaged vine. Out of nowhere my Turkish crew were swarming the basket like hungry bees. Thank goodness, I thought. At least they can walk us out of here with no further damage. Wrong again. As four of them held onto the basket, one of them jumped inside with me and my now surely enraged check pilot. The one who held my adventure in his non-green hands. I waited for his wrath to reign down on me in buckets. Instead, without saying a word, or even gesturing with his talented talking fingers, he climbed out the basket, slowing walked only a dangerously close few steps away, and lit up an American cigarette. I was speechless. As we sat there, I looked over at the grapevine that we had just tried to destroy. It was still leaning and the churned up soil leading up to it created a telltale trail of evidence of what had happened. I would be lucky if I did not end up in Turkish prison over this. By now the balloon had settled and a couple of the crew had let go and were just standing there. I had an idea. I rubbed my hands together, as if to generate some creativity. I got the attention of one of the crew and pointed to the poor leaning plant. I put the palms of my hands together, fingers pointing upward, slightly leaning. I looked at the plant, then I looked at him. I slowly and gently brought my hands up to vertical, not taking my eyes off the Turkish man. He started to smile as he walked over to the grapevine and gently brought it back to it’s normal healthy position as prior to the crash. I gave him a big thumbs up which he quickly returned. By now, Murat is on cigarette #2. Looking at the ground around the plant, I could tell there was work yet to be done. I held up my hands, palms facing out in a halting position. That got my man’s attention again. I then pointed to the ground where the soil was torn up. I held both hands out, palms down, and began a rapid sweeping circular motion. He caught on and copied my motions with his hands in the soil. One of the other crew jumped in a did the same. In no time, it was impossible to detect that anything unusual or destructive had occurred on the site. When I looked up, every man was smiling almost to the point of laughter, even the smoker.
Murat climbed back into the basket, and the other man stayed in. Again the talking fingers directed me to take back to the sky and leave this place. Which I did gladly.
We flew over a power line an on to the field where some of the other balloons had started to land. I cruised past a couple of the downed balloons saying hello the crews working below. Our final landing was uneventful, almost. As soon as we touched down, I began to stabilize the balloon and shutting down burners and venting the lines. The next thing I knew, the two other folks in my basket decided they wanted to leave, without telling me. Of course when they departed the big balloon wanted to fly again. It took all the crew and pulling vent line like crazy not to go airborne again. Was that some kind of test? What were they thinking?
Once deflated the crew set about packing up the balloon. I set about trying to figure out what just happened and if I was going to pass my check flight. The man who was going to decide if I was in fact going to get to fly very big balloons, was quietly standing a few feet away, having another American cigarette. I walked over to where he was standing so I could try to thank him for his time. Maybe he could see the question written all over my face. Before I could say anything, He kinda halfway smiled and raised his fist into a “thumbs up” sign, and said in perfectly clear English, “Goot….very goot”.
I start flying the very big balloons and passengers from all over the world on Friday.