Monday, August 9, 2010

Between a rock....

I knew this day was coming for me. I had heard about it. I had even seen it with my own eyes. But until today, it had not happened to me, but I knew it was just a matter of time. I had imagined it, dreaded it, and even feared it, but apparently there was no escaping the inevitable.
I arrived with the rest of the crew at the launch field in Goreme Valley just as the it was getting light enough to see the outline of the mountains to the east. To the west I could see Uchisar Castle, a solid rock fortress and the tallest thing within miles, towering above the desert landscape. Directly behind the launch area to the south twinkling lights were visible in the little village of Goreme, the virtual center of Cappadocian tourism. And to the north lay the entire Goreme Valley, the phenomena that tourist from all over the world come to see. Of the almost one thousand tourist who would see this amazing place from hot air balloons today, 12 of them would see it with me. As my Turkish ground crew went about the business of readying the Cameron 210, (210,000 cubic foot hot air balloon), I studied the small helium filled test balloons, back in the USA we call ’em piballs, which stands for pilot information balloons, that had been released in order to get some idea of what direction the winds may take us today. Just like every day for the last couple of weeks, the little piballs drifted slowly to the north at about 2 mph. And then at around 120 meters, or 400 feet for my American friends, the piballs start to take a slow turn to the east and by 300 meters are heading back to the south. With this kind of wind a good pilot can go just about anywhere he wants. The only problem here in this valley is that it won’t stay that way for long. When the sun starts to peek over the rim of the mountain to the east, all bets are off. As the cooler air on the valley floor starts to heat up the wind does strange unpredictable things and as a balloon pilot, you just don’t know from minute to minute what the wind might have in store for you.
The entire Goreme Valley actually consists of many little valleys or more like canyons that stretch out like fingers. The more prominent ones are Red Valley, Rose Valley, Zemi Valley, Pigeon Valley and of course everybody’s favorite, Love Valley. These valleys are just full of geological wonders consisting of ancient cave churches and dwellings, and the most striking feature, what the locals call Fairy Chimneys. The chimneys are tall slender columns of solid rock that can be up to 100 feet tall and stand like guardians in the valleys they protect. These wonders are why 40-60 hot air balloons take to the sky each day. Our mission is to take our guests for the ride of their lives floating among the fairy chimneys, deep into the canyons. A very serious problem is that these little valleys will not accommodate more than a half dozen or so balloons at a time. It is like a balloon rally competition each day to see who can get in and stay in long enough for the passengers to experience what they came for.
The crew had the 210 ready for inflation about the time my passengers showed up. As they were directed to the little table set up for serving hot coffee, tea, and cookies, I set about the task of bringing the giant balloon to life. I checked the connections, all 28 of the individual steel cables attaching the envelope to the basket, checked the control lines, and made sure the propane tanks and hoses were properly installed and ready. With everything in order and a nod to the two crew members holding the giant mouth open, I aimed the three burners to the center of the balloon and squeezed the toggle on the top burner. I could not see them, but I know the passengers were startled at the roar of the burning propane shooting into the belly of the beast. Slowly at first, and as the balloon began to rise, I continued to burn until it was standing straight up in the cool comfortable morning air. Once I was sure the balloon was stable, I called for my passengers to begin boarding. Even the lack of sleep from getting up so early in the morning could not hide their excitement. These 12 trusting souls were getting into a flying contraption supported in flight by mere hot air and a few steel cables, with someone they had never met. And they could not have been happier. I never cease to be amazed at the sense of adventure and fun that these folks bring with them as they scramble into the basket to begin their once in a life time experience. I am equally amazed that they leave behind any concerns about a perfect stranger taking them into the sky. Oh well, as long as they keep coming, I will keep taking them.
Now the basket was filled with an international group of people from France, Spain, and Turkey. And of course, the good ole USA, represented by me. Luckily on this day with this particular group of passengers, they all could understand at least a little English, with the exception of the Turkish couple. Lucky for them, I have become pretty adept at making myself understood to Turkish folks. I gave them the standard welcome greeting, introducing myself, and going over what we were about to do. I try to address each person individually and ask where they are from and if this is their first balloon ride. When they say yes, it is their first time, I reply “Yeah, me too! That usually helps loosing them up a little as they laugh and secretly hope to themselves that I am just kidding. I then tell them we are going to fly about an hour, give or take a few minutes, depending on the wind and our flight path. I explain that we will go with the wind but I can change altitude to maybe change directions, sometimes. I assure them they are about to fly over one of the most interesting and beautiful landscapes on earth and that any direction we go, will be woderful. Next comes the safety briefing. I have to tell them about possible windy or hard landings and how to prepare for that if it happens. This is where I have to make sure they are really paying attention so that I know if at any time during the flight, I say, “ LANDING POSITION NOW!” that they will indeed know what to do. The functional integrity of their arms and legs and other various bones, and their very lives may depend on it.
Once I’m sure everyone understands about the landing position, we are ready for take off. With the 12 passengers and me on board it takes a lot of heat to get us off the ground. The total weight including balloon, propane fuel and passengers is now close to 4,000 pounds! There is an extra fuel tank on board that is used just for inflation and getting the balloon hot enough to fly. It takes the entire tank to do this. Once it is empty, I disconnect the hose from it and reconnect to a full tank. The crew chief takes the empty tank out of the basket. That gives us four full tanks or 60 gallons of propane to make the flight. If all goes as planned, that will allow us to fly one hour and still have about 45 minutes of reserve fuel. Fuel management while flying a hot air balloon is very critical anywhere you fly. But flying here, it takes on a whole new meaning, because if you get caught out of fuel here, it could not only be embarrassing but downright dangerous. I always tell folks not to worry when they ask about where we will land, there is always a place to land, it’s just that some places are way better than others. There are some places here in Cappadocia that you don’t want to end up. You might be able to safely land, but even a good Turkish donkey could not get to you. Therefore, fuel management is always on my mind.
One final check of my passengers, a radio check with the crew chief and a thumbs up from my spotter indicating it is clear above, a quick burn using the power of two burners, and we slowly leave the ground. The lift off is normally so subtle, that almost always there will be someone in the basket that does not even realize we are airborne until we are 25 feet in the air. It is 5:45 am as we begin the 2 mph drift to the north, just barely skimming the tops of the fruit trees in the orchard below. I stay low because I like the direction and will wait to climb when I want to make that turn to the east. Before I can climb, I call the crew chief to see if it is clear above. It’s the one place I can not see, straight above me. And with 50 or so other balloons in the area, I want to know it is clear. Mehmet calls back, “Skybirdman, you’re upside is free!” I am constantly looking and calculating and watching the other balloons. Today, I was one of the first 5 balloons in the air and I had the other 4 in site, a good confirmation for me that my “upside” was indeed “free”. Using only a single burner now I start a slow climb to get that turn to the east. As we climb I point out the different areas of interest to the passengers and remind them that in approximately 30 seconds, they will see the “first” sunrise of the day peeking over the mountain. Very often here the passengers will be treated to more than one sunrise as we descend down into the canyons and back up again. At 500 feet I am still heading due north. A quick look behind me and the race is one, as now another 30 balloons are off the ground and headed my way. In just a few more minutes, there will be 50 of us vying for premium airspace for the optimum views. Don’t get the wrong idea here. If I did nothing else but take the balloon to 1000 feet and just sit there for an hour, it would be fairly spectacular. In any direction from that height you can see an awesome landscape that has been formed from millions of years of carving by nature’s knife. But from a pilot’s point of view, fairly boring. So for me, and for most of the other pilot’s flying here in these very big balloons, it is a challenge. A personal challenge to test one’s own flying skills, and to the other pilots to see who on any given day has the right stuff to get down in the canyons and fly the balloon like a magic carpet, slowly gliding past the fairy chimneys, and the doors and windows of the ancient churches and dwellings that are carved into the canyon walls. To silently visit a place where hundreds, even thousands of years ago, a people lived in harmony among the rocks. A place where you can still see orchards and vineyards growing in the same place where they did so long ago. Just the thought of sharing the same space with these ancients is mind boggling. But to see it, from the balloon flying effortlessly and silently through the canyon, close enough to reach out and touch, is just simply, beyond description.
Now there are balloons in every direction and all altitudes. There are balloons below and above me and in all directions. They pretty much have me surrounded. About this time, the sun has done it’s thing and put a kink in any preplanning as far as wind direction is concerned. I look down and see balloons getting a shift to the west which is a good thing, right toward the coveted Love Valley. It is by far, the most interesting and sought after by the balloon pilots. It is a challenge to get to, but once there the passengers are extremely happy. The fairy chimneys in Love Valley are quite different than most others. Let’s just say they are strikingly similar in appearance to something that lends itself to support the designation of this particular place as “love valley” and could also be called Viagra Valley. Enough said?
Some of the 50 of us have already missed the chance to navigate to the valley, I think I can make it. A good visual check below and I pull the red and white vent line to release some of the heat that is keeping us in level flight. In just a few seconds the now, not lighter than air balloon, starts a deliberate descent toward the river of moving air that will hopefully take us to Love Valley. As we descend, it is very apparent that other pilots are also making their play for the valley. I have to slow my descent to give another balloon some room, then head down again. Adding heat now from two burners, I want to stop the descent quickly and stay level where the wind will take me west. One hundred yards from the canyon rim and entrance into the valley at 100 feet above the ground I look and see my friend Andy has joined me in my quest. Andy is from England and flies for Urgup Balloons. We have been talking on face book and he has been trying to get some decent photos of the now named “Green Goblin” for me. (My four and a half year old balloonatic grandson, Christopher, gave it the name) His big yellow 400,000 cubic foot balloon carrying 25 passengers is cruising maybe 50 feet higher than the Goblin, about 100 yards north, and slightly behind. We are both headed for Love Valley, along with 10 other balloons all around us. I can see half a dozen “good pilots” have already made it and are cruising through the canyon, now headed north at about 4 mph. There is a trick to getting into Love Valley. And I sure wish I knew what it is. I think it has a lot to do with just plain luck. Andy is maintaining his position in relation to the Goblin. Our forward speed has dropped off some and we are now racing for the canyon at about 3 mph. I’m sure I will get to the rim before him. Once over the edge, the valley drain should pick me up and push me to the right or headed north like the balloons already in. If that happens too quickly, it will put me on a collision course with Andy and the big yellow balloon. As the Goblin gets closer, I noticed two balloons in the canyon right in front of me. If I have to climb to give them room to pass our chances of getting in are shot. The westward wind will push me right past the narrow valley, but they do have the right of way since they are already in. There are not many trees on the rim. But there was one scrawny little bush doing it’s best to survive the rocky landscape growing about 20 feet from the edge. I’ve probably forgotten a lot of what I’ve learned over the last 20 years flying over the cotton fields and sugar cane fields around the little town of LeCompte, Louisiana. But at this moment in this far away land, far, far, from Lea’s Lunchroom, I remembered about “organic braking”. I didn’t invent it, and Paul gave it the name, and it was just what I needed to buy a little time. The little bush wasn’t much but obviously had some strong deep roots. I let the Goblin cool a bit and leveled out just above the terrain with no more than a foot between the basket and the ground, contouring the earth at 2 mph. More than one of my passengers are now expressing concern and asking me if I see that bush and want to know if we are going to hit it. I answered by telling everyone to hang on tight and cover their eyes. (To avoid a poke in the eye from the bush). I hit the bush dead on and it grabbed the Goblin and held on tight. Just for a minute, but that’s all I needed to give the two balloons in the valley time to get by. The basket rolled a bit, slid past the bush and we were on our way to the prize. Or so I thought. There are many mysteries here in this ancient land that will never be explained away. I’m sure one of them will be how can there be an “invisible wall” that protects Love Valley from only “some” invading balloons, while others just slip right in? I hit the dang wall. The Goblin did not actually stop at the invisible wall, but instead took a hard right turn and began to drift north, right along the rim, right toward the very big yellow balloon. I was still flying only a few feet off the ground, at least on one side of the basket. The other side was a 300 foot drop to the valley floor below. Weird. One side grass and rocks within touch and the other side, nothing but air. I kept low hoping to get a drift left so I could descend into the canyon and give Andy some room. But the Goblin stayed right on track following the rim like a magnet. Very slowly the two big balloons converged. Andy was holding his altitude about 50 feet higher than the Goblin. Closer and closer and now the big yellow balloon completely blocked the sun. One of my passengers ask, “is this dangerous?” I explained that it was common for two balloons to touch as long as it was fabric to fabric and not basket to fabric. Not sure she was convinced. Andy got to the rim and hit the wall. I kept on tract at about 1 mph on the rim right toward the yellow balloon. At this point Andy and I are close enough to talk to one another. The only thing I could think to say was, “Hey Andy, don’t forget to take some pictures for me!“ Closer and closer and then we stopped. The Goblin and “Big Yellow” were now touching, fabric to fabric and both suspended and dead still. I had drifted a bit just over the edge and the basket was now hovering two feet over the top of a very pointy fairy chimney. Andy began to slowly inch his way up the side of my balloon. This would hopefully give him enough altitude once above me to continue on past so that I could then climb, get over the invisible wall, and do the same. Half way there he stopped climbing. It seemed like a good strategy to me and I could not figure out why he just stopped. He sat there, now more above than beside for what seemed like a very long time. I have not moved from my locked in position, two, now one, now two, feet above the pointy rock below, with no wind to move me in any direction. It has happened, just like I knew it would eventually. I am trapped in a hot air balloon between a rock and a hard place…the hard place being Andy’s basket. They told me it would happen. But did they tell me what to do? Only one thing to do. Patience. Something will change sooner or later. Hopefully sooner than I run out of fuel and have to land on one of those not so good places. After what seemed like a real long time of talking to my passengers and telling them how wonderful it was that we were getting to just sit in this one lovely spot and view the wonderful Love Valley from here, we began to move. Ever so slowly to the west and out over the valley. After just a short time I could see why Andy stopped his climb. There were two other balloons stacked right above the big yellow balloon, holding him down like he was holding me.
By now, there was no time to play in the valley of Love. There was barely enough wind to keep us moving west and we had used a lot of fuel trying to maintain position between the rock and the hard place. We stayed level and slowly drifted over the valley with the strange looking pinnacles below. Close enough to see and for the passengers to ooh and ahhh…but not where I wanted to be. But, now I had a new goal for this flight. Find a nice safe and crew accessible place to land the Goblin. The fairy chimneys and churches, and cave dwellings, and the mysteries of Love Valley will still be there tomorrow.
I could see the crew truck parked on the far ridge. Another five minutes on this track and we will be there. Two minutes later the Goblin caught a wind that moved us now to the south and away from the good landing places beyond the ridge. I couple of good blasts from the two burners and we were climbing to find something that would get us back on track. At 1000 feet above the ground we got a good shift back to the west where we continued until over the open farm land. The crew was on the move, trying to figure out where we would end up. I gave the vent line a good 3 second pull and we were on our way down again, fast. We had to get down fast so not to get pushed out of the good landing places. Again the two burners did their job and we leveled off ten feet above the ground. Now a new twist. Instead of poking along at 2-3 mph, we were flying across the fields at 8 mph. I looked for the crew, but could not find them. At this point, without the crew, it is just me and the Goblin against the forces of the wind. I let the balloon settle at two foot off the ground and now we were really moving. Still no crew. There is only a limited amount of space in front of us before we run out of “the good place”. It was time for my passengers to do their part in preserving life and limb as I instructed in the loudest but calmest voice I could muster…”LANDING POSITION NOW!” Still no crew to be seen anywhere. As soon as I could see that my passengers were indeed ready for what lay ahead, I let the Goblin kiss the ground, but just barely. The passengers could not see, but they could hear the basket ripping through the dry grass and weeds, not much organic braking but helping some. Just as I was about to let it settle onto the moving earth, and brace myself for a little bone jarring dragging and bouncing, the basket began to slow rapidly, touch the sandy soil, dragged for 10 feet and stopped. Another mystery I supposed, until I looked behind me and saw my three little Turkish crew guys, hanging on for dear life to the outside of the basket. They had saved the Goblin, and me, and all 12 of our trusting passengers, from what could have been a very rough landing.

We had quite the adventure that day. And the day was just starting. I got caught between a rock and a hard place, and lived to tell about it. We saw some beautiful scenery. The passengers were happy. The crew was happy. It was just another day at the office for me. And Andy got some tremendously awesome photos of the Green Goblin at work.

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