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Up, Up and Away

February 5, 2011

This week is my yearly “ballooning weekend”.  For the past four years I have crewed for hot air balloon pilots participating in Vernon Winter Carnival’s Balloon Fiesta.  This year I am with the same pilot I have crewed for the previous two years.  This year we had pilots from as far away as Turkey.

Balloonist are very competitive.  Pilots like to show off their flying skills.  All flights at the Fiesta involve races of some type for prize money.  When one considers that balloons cost upwards of $20,000, that a balloonist also needs a vehicle to haul it around in, and that most travel hundreds or thousands of miles to compete, the prize money is relatively meaningless.

The races take many forms.  One type is called hare and hounds. All the balloons launch from the same site.  One balloon takes off first and is the hare balloon. The other balloons are called the hounds, and they will launch a predetermined time after the hare. The hare lands at a suitable site and lays out a large fabric X, usually about 50 feet in diameter. The hound balloons attempt to drop small weighted markers as close to the center of the X as possible. The closest marker achieves the highest score.  Usually there is a time limit.

Another race is the flag grab.  A flag is set up on a pole a few feet above the ground.  Pilots are allowed to launch from anywhere they choose outside of a predetermined radius from the flag, usually a mile or two.  Pilots attempt to navigate their balloons to the flag site, drop down and grab the flag as they pass by.  If a pilot’s basket touches the ground he is disqualified.

Crewing involves unpacking and setting up the balloon at the launch site. The envelope (the main part of the balloon) is unpacked and laid out.  The basket (most are still made of wicker) is set up, the burner is attached, and the propane lines are connected.  The basket is laid on its side and attached to the envelope.  The envelope is then inflated with a gasoline-powered fan.  When the envelope is just about filled with air the pilot fires the burner and the envelope begins to rise.  One of the crew controls the balloon with the crown line, a rope attached to the top of the balloon.  As the balloon rises it pulls the basket upright.  As this is happened the pilot gets into the basket.  The crew throw their weight onto the sides of the basket to keep the balloon from rising prematurely.  The passengers get in, the pilot fires the burner and they are off.

By the way, the burner produces between 2 and 15 million BTUs.  The 80,000 BTU furnace will easily heat a 2500 sq. ft. house.

Once the balloon is in the air, crew become the chase team who keep in radio contact with the pilot and follow the balloon with a chase vehicle (usually the truck and trailer the balloon is hauled in).  When the pilot lands the crew attends at the landing site.  If the pilot has landed in an accessible area, things are fairly easy.  The envelope is detached from from the basket, milked (removing all the air), and packed into its storage bag.  The burner is removed from the basket and everything is placed in the trailer.  If the landing was somewhere inaccessible to the chase vehicle things are a bit more difficult.  The crew has to drag everything out.  My pilot’s envelope weighs about 300 pounds and the basket and burner with 4 empty40 lb. propane tanks weighs about 200 pounds.  Add 160 lb. if the tanks are full.  Sometimes the pilot can keep the envelope inflated on landing and can maintain neutral buoyancy so the crew can walk the balloon out.

If you crew for a “friendly” pilot, you might get to go up with him once in awhile.  I have been lucky; I have been up every year.

The flight completed, tradition calls for a celebratory glass of champagne for all.  We were discussing  flight times today, and by comparing pilot’s logs it was determined that the average was about 1 hour and 20 minutes.  After the flight one crew member assists the pilot to refill the propane tanks.

Unlike all other forms of flying, balloon pilots do not have direct control of their direction of flight.  The balloon simply drifts with the wind.  The only way to “steer” a hot air balloon is to find a layer of air that is moving in the direction you want to go.  Usually before a flight the pilot will release a helium filled balloon called a pie-ball.  He will watch it rise and as it does it will move with the air currents.  The pilot is then able to determine at what approximate altitude the air is moving in the direction he wishes to go. Some days it’s all going in the wrong direction.  By firing the burner the pilot gets the balloon to rise.  By letting it cool he gets it to descend.  The balloon also has a mechanism to release air which makes descent quite rapid.

The experience of hot air ballooning is like nothing else.  It is like being suspended in the air (well, I guess that’s really what it is), but most times there is no sensation of movement.  The peace and tranquility are amazing.  The only sound is the occasional roar of the burner.  The serenity is awesome as are the 360-degreeviews from thousands of feet up.  If you ever get the opportunity, go for it!

Here are some pictures from the last couple of days.  The night shots are from an event called a “glow.”  The balloons are closely assembled and at a signal all fire their burners.  It’s a real crowd pleaser.  This year the weather turned on us.  A rainstorm blew in suddenly and quite violently causing very unsafe conditions.  Another concerning factor is that rain damages the balloon fabric.  As a result all had to deflate as quickly as possible.  Luckily I got some pics as the pilot’s were doing their test fires.

The blue and white balloon is “mine.”

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