Hot air ballooning has always been one of those things for me that I will get to “someday”. I have a pretty long list of things I want to do in my life and it includes some pretty monstrous things. I can’t ever just do something and be satisfied with it. I have to go big or go home as the saying goes. Adding on my lighter-than-air rating is one of those things on my list. No, I can’t just go on a hot air balloon ride. I have to go get the full rating. Right? Are you like this too?
Probably about 10 years or so ago, I looked into what it would take for me to add on a hot air balloon rating to my existing commercial pilot certificate. I was living in Wisconsin and we didn’t get to see a lot of balloons drifting along with the wind. When you did see one, it was a big deal and we had to scream out to everyone in the car, “Oh look! There’s a hot air balloon! Wow, so cool!” Even though I was already so immersed into aviation as my favorite hobby, I was still so awe-struck every time I saw a balloon.
While researching the requirements to add on a lighter-than-air rating to my commercial certificate, I learned that it’s just like adding on any other rating. You take a written, oral, and flight exam. After about 15 hours of flight training, I would probably be ready to take the exams.
When I moved to Maryland, I looked into it again. At this point, life had gotten pretty busy so I would have just been content actually getting to ride in a hot air balloon. I spoke with a pilot there more about it and I also met another pilot who lived in my same apartment building. But alas, I still never got up in one.
Now, I’ve moved to Arizona where it seems there’s eight or ten balloons in the sky every morning and evening. I live out in the desert and get to drive every day through an area where the balloons launch and land. Still, it was something I would do “someday.”
I am very blessed to have met a wonderful man at Airventure in Oshkosh who shares the same love for aviation as I do. He’s the reason I moved to Arizona and we were married the day after Christmas just a few months ago. He also watched me look to the sky every single day as we watched the balloons out for the evening. For our first Valentine’s Day this year, he surprised me with my very first hot air balloon ride! I am not sure how he managed to pull off the surprise but I had no clue until we pulled into the parking lot at the airport! We kind of stuck out like a sore thumb. Imagine all of these couples all dressed up for their Valentine’s Day dates and then us – just did a 6 mile mountain hike in the Arizona sun so we were full of sunscreen, sweat, and dirt! I just love surprises!
After we parked the truck, we got in line to sign waivers and meet the others with whom we’d enjoy this adventure. Because it was Valentine’s Day, it was kind of fun to figure out which couples had just started dating and which ones were together a while. I’ve done a lot of flights in a fixed-wing airplane for similar special days and it was kind of fun to be on the other side today. After we signed our waivers, we were directed to the passenger van that we would all ride in to get to the launch site. In all, we had enough people that there would be about 7 balloons all going up at the same time.
On the ride over, we ran into another group giving rides that evening. They also had 7 or 8 balloons getting ready to launch, so we knew it was going to be a great view of not only the Arizona sunset but also of all the other balloons in the sky at the same time.
We arrived at the launch site, which was an old staging area for construction vehicles in the middle of the desert. The wind had picked up just a little bit but nothing major. I whipped out my phone to check the METAR at the nearest airport to just watch what the winds were doing. What I found interesting was how the pilot checked the wind. He had a tank of helium on the crew truck and used it to fill up a black latex balloon. He tied it off and let it go into the wind. He explained to all of us that if the balloon ascends at a 45-degree angle, that’s the no-go point. With wind speeds like that, we’d be taken for a ride rather than having a nice enjoyable evening. He also explained that we had to watch the balloon as it climbed out into the sky to watch for any shifts in the wind direction or a drastic increase in wind speed at altitude. We all watched that balloon with high hopes that we would be able to get up in the sky that evening. To our delight, the pilot determined it was a go and he began our briefing.
Our pilot divided up our group of 16 into 2 groups of 8. He explained that one group would get in the basket on one side and the other group on the other. The basket was tipped on it’s side and the balloon was completely deflated on the ground. The crew set up a pretty powerful industrial strength fan to start inflating the balloon. So at this point, the balloon was being inflated with ambient air. Once the balloon started to take shape, the basket started to tip up just a bit. At this point, the pilot had 4 people on each side climb into position in the basket for additional weight. The rest of us waited patiently and watched what the crew was doing in excitement. A younger woman next to us started to get visibly nervous, almost to the point I thought she might decide at the last minute to skip the flight. She asked us if we had done this before. It seemed comforting to her to know that my husband had done this before.
Once we all climbed in the basket, the pilot continued to heat the air. My husband had taken his son on a hot air balloon ride before and knew just exactly how hot that burner can get on your skin. When we were packing up the backpack for our morning hike, he told me to pack a long sleeved shirt for dinner later because he knew that I got a bit chilled in air conditioning. I obviously later found out that the long sleeved shirt was to protect my skin from the heat. We also had baseball caps with us from the hike, which protected the top of our heads from the heat off the burner. My husband has a shaved head and he learned his lesson on his first flight! The nervous woman was wearing a strapless top and had to crouch down to the bottom of the basket to protect her skin. I was very thankful to have that long sleeved shirt and baseball cap.
After a couple of blasts from the burner to heat the air, we started to lift off the ground. It wasn’t quite enough for the ground crew to release the tethers, but it was enough to create some excitement inside the basket! The pilot continued to add heat from the burner to get us up and ready for flight. The crew released us and we were on our way.
What was surprising to me was that there was absolutely no feeling of lift. I did not get that funny feeling in my stomach from sudden lift. You know the feeling. That same feeling you get when you get on an elevator ascending pretty quickly. There was none of that at all. We continued to climb out and we could see all of the other balloons already in the sky. The view was obviously very similar to what you’d see on a low altitude aircraft flight.
I was reminded of the first time I flew in an open cockpit airplane. I had the opportunity to fly in a Waco and experience open cockpit flying. It was awesome, yet windy. Since hot air balloons drift with the wind, you don’t actually feel the wind. It almost feels as if you’re just floating through the sky. It was sort of like the dreams I had as a kid about being able to fly. At one point, I had a conversation with the man next to me about how the two balloons off in the distance appeared to be climbing pretty quickly. After a few moments of conversation, we both realized at the same time that we were probably descending. It was so gentle that there was no falling sensation.
After about a 45 minute flight through the Arizona desert at sunset, we found a good place to land. The pilot radioed his crew to let them know where to meet us. We made our way to the clearing in the desert and landed. It was a bit of a rough landing. Our momentum kept us going a bit across the ground but we eventually came to a complete stop.
After we all got out of the basket, we were treated to a glass of champagne and a toast. Legend tells us that early French hot air balloonists carried champagne with them to appease to worrisome spectators at their landing site. The Balloonist Blessing is often recited as a toast with the champagne:
The winds have welcomed you with softness
The sun has blessed you with its warm hands
You have flown so high and so well
That God has joined you in your laughter
and set you gently back into the loving arms of mother earth.
This was a fun opportunity for me. Several years ago, I wrote about stepping out of my comfort zone and I took a helicopter lesson. When I originally envisioned my first hot air balloon flight, it was supposed to be my first hot air balloon lesson. I wanted to log it in my logbook. This flight was a reminder to me that sometimes it’s nice to just sit back and enjoy the moment and the people that you’re with.