A Ride in a Hot Air Balloon

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After spending a day or two at Balloon Fiesta, the desire to take flight will, no doubt, become too much to handle.  Those balloons are beautiful, as you watch them gracefully lift off and float into the sky, but imagine actually being on one!  It’s a ride you’ll never forget — one that adds a whole new dimension to your enjoyment of Balloon Fiesta.

You should take my word for it, because I’m speaking from personal experience.  During the 2011 Balloon Fiesta, I was blessed with the opportunity to go for a hot-air balloon ride, as a member of the media (not just as publisher of this website, but also thanks to my “day job” in TV and writing for the Tampa Tribune). My ride was a little different than the one you’ll take — mostly because I was in a small basket, with just two other people (commercial balloons have baskets that can hold several more people) — but the thrill is all the same.  So, here’s how my day went:

It was before sunrise when I met up with my balloon team, the folks from the International Balloon Festival of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu (in French, International de Montgolfières de Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu). It’s the largest balloon festival in Canada, held in Quebec in August.  The team spends the rest of the year traveling the US and Canada, promoting their festival and spreading their love for ballooning.  They spent several days driving to Albuquerque — the farthest event from Quebec which they attend.

Immediately, it became obvious to me that this is a very simple form of transportation.  Of course, it takes great skill to do it correctly, but as far as the equipment goes, it’s basic: there’s a basket, a couple of propane canisters, a framework to hold the burners…

… and the balloon itself.  It doesn’t look like much, when it’s rolled up and stored away.

There were about a half-dozen people on the Montgolfieres team, who scurried around, preparing the balloon for flight.  Balloonmeister (pilot) Daniel Turcotte supervised every step, as the crew hooked up and tested the burners…

… and rolled out the balloon…

… then filled it with cold air, using a huge gas-powered fan.

Standing in the wind from that fan, I was able to look up into the balloon…

… then Daniel waved me around to the top side, to give me a look down towards the basket.

Once the balloon was taking shape…

… the crew applied some heat, by firing up the burners.

… and the balloon lifted off the ground!

In cartoons and old movies, you always see sandbags hanging from the sides of balloons.  Well, you don’t need them, when you have a crew!  Several members of the team hung on to the sides of the basket, patiently waiting for me to take pictures.

Once in the basket, Daniel briefed me on what I could do.  It amounted to this: it was my ride, so if I wanted to take pictures, sit down, stand up, or move to the other side of the basket, no problem!  He revved up the engine…

… and before I realized it, we were off the ground.  The liftoff was much smoother than I had expected.  I thought I might feel butterflies in my stomach, or even worse, get motion-sick.  But when you’re in the balloon, you don’t feel the motion.  The basket might have felt a little wobbly horizontally (if I moved from one side to the other), but it always felt solid vertically.

As we lifted off, I looked out and realized we were already a few feet off the ground.  Moments later, I noticed people gawking at us.  I’ve never felt so lucky.

A minute into the flight, and we were already leaving Balloon Fiesta Park behind.  This was a Monday morning, not a Mass Ascension, so there were far fewer balloons flying on this day — and fewer people in attendance.

It’s around this point that I realized I had a hundred different directions to look, and only one set of eyes.  After watching the park get smaller in the distance…

I looked up, and was shocked to see how many other balloons were already in the air.  I had been paying so much attention to my own balloon, I didn’t notice them launching all around me.

I asked Daniel, “What is our goal?”, thinking he would say he hoped to reach a certain altitude, stay up a certain amount of time, or travel a certain distance.

His answer surprised me, simply “to land.”

Yeah, that’s a pretty good goal, I suppose.  But I wasn’t ready to think about landing.  I was hoping the ride would never end, or perhaps we’d end up in Santa Fe or El Paso.  But as it turned out, this was an unusual day for the winds…

… and while Daniel could control how high we were flying, he had little, if any, control of where our flight would end.  So, he started looking for landing spots, as soon as we were in the air.  (In other words, if you see that commercial where the couple has a “moment” and suddenly hops in a balloon, which flies them directly to the two bathtubs at the side of a lake, you’ll know it’s all B.S.)

As the wind took us south, we soared over the Albuquerque Balloon Museum (which you can visit year-round, not just during Balloon Fiesta).  It was obvious where we were headed:

… directly for downtown Albuquerque.  That’s not a good thing — there wasn’t a lot of open, empty land in that direction, and it clearly had Daniel concerned.  Not seriously concerned, just a little.  He clearly loved the thrill and the challenge of his job.  I envied him.

A few balloons wasted little time before they bailed out, with some landing in dirt lots or parking areas, just minutes from Balloon Fiesta Park.

Others drifted on, but much lower than we were (I think we topped out at about 1,500 feet above the ground, if I remember correctly).  That’s the Zia Sun symbol balloon, which I had photographed the night before, at Glowdeo.  Below it is Paseo Del Norte Boulevard, which as the balloon flies, is only about a mile south of Balloon Fiesta Park.

Looking back, more balloons were hot on our tail…

… but Daniel was busy looking forward, at a very crowded landscape.

From here, we would fly almost parallel to that drainage canal…

… perhaps two more miles.

Daniel gave it just enough gas to stay aloft, over those houses…

… then set his sights on a small plot of undeveloped desert, at the corner of Vista Del Norte Drive and Osuna Road.

For safety reasons, I put the camera away as we prepared to land.  Daniel instructed me to do something else as well: swing one leg over the side of the basket, as if I was preparing to hop out.  In moments, I understood why.

Landing a balloon must be the trickiest and most dangerous part of flying one.  You don’t have a paved strip or landing gear, all you have is a basket with a wood frame on the bottom.  And you don’t gently glide down from straight above, you come in at an angle.

Which is where my weird position, hanging half-outside the basket, comes in.  As the basket dropped down and moved forward, it hit the ground, dragged, and tipped over.  Everything shifted 90 degrees, and my sideways stance was surprisingly vertical.  Had I stayed inside the basket, I would have hit the ground, but now I could simply stand up and step out.

What happened next came as a surprise, even to Daniel — and that’s saying something, considering he’s been a pilot since 1987.  The unusual winds of the day were carrying almost every balloon along the exact path we had followed, which meant almost everyone was thinking about landing on our small square of dirt.  Daniel was positively giddy.  He told me I would never again see landings like this.

While Daniel watched the sky with wonder in his eyes, the other member of our crew hurried to deflate the balloon.  Leaving it stretched out, but deflated and bundled, would greatly reduce the chance of another incoming balloon damaging the expensive fabric.

Our balloon was one of the first to land here — a perfect situation, not crowded, but a few people on-hand to help bring us to a stop.  But now, more balloons were arriving…

… causing crew members from other teams to come to the aid of their fellow balloonists.  They would run to catch the baskets, then grab on, with hopes of weighing it down enough to bring them to a stop.

The mayhem was fun to watch.  Check out the guy in the blue jacket…

… and down he goes!  Of course, a nice face-plant is hilarious, but there is a more serious side to these landings.

Notice the guy in the orange shirt? He was positioned on the wrong side of the basket when it hit.  The impact threw him from the basket, which then ran over him.  As far as I could tell, he wasn’t seriously injured — but it still served as a scary reminder that landing a balloon is serious business.

The balloons kept coming — some barely made it over the rooftops.

Even Spider Pig was on track to make a landing nearby.

In all the chaos, a jackrabbit went running by.  Poor guy…

… he probably had no idea why his peaceful little square of desert had turned so chaotic!

A phone call brought the chase crew to the landing site…

… and within minutes, our simple little aircraft was rolled up…

… and packed away.  That left just one task undone…

… the ceremonial Champagne toast!  Daniel explained to me that a glass of Champagne (or in our case, Mimosas) following a balloon flight is a time-honored tradition, which was started by the French.  I was more than happy to keep the tradition alive!

If you want to take a balloon ride during Balloon Fiesta, you can, but you’ll have to pay for it.  Rainbow Ryders offers rides for $395 per person (as of 2011).  It’s the only balloon ride concessionaire authorized to lift off from Balloon Fiesta Park during the event.

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