Stay in the Basket

(Note: This originally was published in a shorter form in Ultraflight magazine in black and white. What follows has been updated where appropriate, some minor edits made in the text, and more pictures, all in color.)

Business travel can be an adventure or a nuisance. Sometimes it's both. At least I had enough warning to reschedule the flying lessons although I hated giving up my usual weekend activity. The travel agent did not, however, find it amusing when she asked me what my airplane seating preference was and I answered "cockpit".

The truth is, I don't like flying commercial jets. I used to but then I lived through a really awful take-off where we actually hit something just after we left the ground. The next 40 minutes after that still holds first place on my list of Worst Airplane Experiences.

So there I was, on my way to Arizona with my hands leaving fingerprints in the armrests and no prospects for fun aviation until after I got back to Chicago. Nervous? Heck, I was so pale-faced the flight attendant asked if it was my first time on an airplane. Do any other pilots out there suffer from fear of flying?

It was actually the first time I had stepped on board a commercial jet since that Worst Airplane Experience and, while I’m happy to say I’ve reacclimatized since then, on that particular flight I was a nervous wreck. If you need to get over an acquired fear of flying then a 3-4 hour flight from Chicago to Arizona is probably not your best option. Personally, I’d suggest something of much shorter duration. Unfortunately for me, the company needed to send me to Phoenix, Arizona rather than, say Columbus, Ohio to help run a training seminar so there I was, stuck for hours and hours.

The temperature change wasn’t fun, either. It had been 40 degrees when I left Chicago. I walked through the Phoenix airport’s nicely air conditioned interior, my winter jacket over one arm, in relative comfort. Then, as I exited the airport I smacked right into Phoenix’s 100 degree heat. It really was like hitting a wall. A hot wall. I collapsed on a nearby bench with a “Whoaff!” sort of noise and stayed there, stunned, for a few minutes. There was another person on the bench, sensibly attired in shorts, sandals, and t-shirt. He looked at me, then observed “You’re from back east, aren’t you? Or up north?” Gee, it was that obvious?

Monday afternoon, as I was quietly melting in the heat at my assigned station at the training seminar my boss asked me if was going to take advantage of any of the tourist things in the area. It actually hadn’t occurred to me to do anything of the sort. It was my first business trip and I was anxious to make a good impression as I was still relatively new to the job, so it hadn’t occurred to me that, during my off hours, I was allowed to enjoy myself. I mumbled something about the airplane tour over the Grand Canyon but that would have required a whole day and I was there to work, not play. The boss said that there was a hot air balloon ride that left from the hotel golf course, and wouldn’t I like something like that?

I pointed out that by taking the balloon ride I'd be two hours late to work that particular day.

He said go ahead anyway.

I questioned the appropriateness of having champagne during the advertised post-flight “champagne breakfast”, that is, drinking prior to work.

He told me one glass wouldn’t hurt me and just don’t show up drunk.

How could I say no? (He was definitely one of more decent bosses I’ve had) This was just a little too good be true so I called the Other Half, thinking there would be at least a peep at the cost but no, that's not what happened. This is what I heard: "What's the matter with you - never had to talk you into getting altitude before!"

I went and arranged for the ride.

Next on the list was locating funds and a camera. After I explained why I wanted the camera the girl behind the counter at the local drug store went to the effort of finding me a panoramic one. What did we do before cash machines and disposable cameras?

That just left getting to sleep. Oh, I was tired enough, having worked from 7 am to 8:30 pm (like I said, I went to Arizona to work) but excitement kept me blinking at the ceiling for some time. Also, I had a choice between running the industrial strength air conditioner, which did indeed have the capability of lowering the room temperature below the boiling point of lead at the small price of an 80 decibel roar and a gale coming out of the air vents, or having more peace and quiet but being hot enough to wonder when my toenails would start to melt.

(I fly open cockpit airplanes in 40 degree weather. I handle cold a lot better than heat. Arizona was a bit difficult for me to handle, and it was only spring.)

I did, eventually, get some sleep. I even remembered my manners and didn't snarl too much at the chipper wake-up call. I had been told that dawn and sunset are the times for ballooning, with dawn being preferred for the lower temperature. Lower? Right, it had "dropped" to maybe 85 degrees.

A 4-wheel drive SUV pulling a trailer stopped outside the lobby of the hotel and a rather ordinary fellow stepped out. Aside from the little balloon logo on his shirt pocket there was nothing to indicate he was the guy I was looking for, but who else would be coming in here at 4:30 in the morning? We waited about five more minutes for the other two tourists to show up, which they did. Turned out I was the only American in the group - the balloon pilot was from Belgium and the other couple from England. Gee, and I thought I had come a long way for this...

The pilot explained that, due to the wind direction that morning, he didn't want to leave from the golf course but from another field. No problem, we’ll do whatever the guy in charge thinks is best. We all piled into the SUV where we found the ground crew enjoying the air conditioner. The ground crew consisted of one Wisconsin native, another northerner wilting in the Arizona heat. "Another field" turned out to be just that - just another field, once farmland now reverting to scrub. Everybody got out and a couple of small toy balloons filled with helium were released by the balloonists to check the winds.

Ah, yes, the pre-flight weather check... There was that familiar eyes-to-the-skies ritual. Why don’t people ever stand still when doing a weather check? Are you really going to see something significantly different after walking ten feet from your current location? Nonetheless, it was apparent that this wasn't just some quickie check but a serious contemplation of the weather. I found that reassuring.

The decision was "go". The balloon guys opened the trailer and dragged out one oversized laundry basket - yes, it really was wicker - and what looked like a hassock. The outer part of the "hassock" was a bag, and once that was off they quickly unrolled the balloon. It was laid out nice and neat by the ground crew guy while the pilot pulled some struts out of the basket, stuck them into the corners, lifted up a burner unit and set it on top of the struts.

 This picture was taken just before sun up, so I had to use a little photo-enhancement on it to increase the contrast, and it's still not the greatest. It does, however, let you see part of the pre-flight operations, where the basket is fully assembled, the balloon ready for inflation, and the connections between balloon and basket laid out for inspection

About then the pilot noticed I was actually watching him do all this and said "You can watch but don't touch." No problem, don't know how it goes together anyhow. As I watched him assemble the basket and burner I did notice that the basket had a steel frame behind all that wicker, it was sturdier than it looked. Everything locked into place with a brisk >snap< and was then safety-cabled so if something did break nothing would fly completely apart. Reassuring, actually, to some degree. The pilot pointed out how the fuel tanks connected to the burners and showed me his instruments. He said that there were set ups that looked prettier but the gas connections were behind a console so you couldn't check them without taking everything apart. In his basket everything was more exposed, you could get at the gas lines and both look at and touch them before you went up. Said it didn't look as pretty but he felt it was safer.

I was beginning to like this guy. I prefer safe over pretty, too.

Flight instruments were altimeter, radio, transponder, and the controls for the burner. I never thought to see an altitude-encoding transponder in a wicker basket attached to a balloon but there it was. It was a wicker basket equipped with better avionics than some airplanes I’ve flown.

With everything assembled it was time for that essential part of commercial aviation fun - the waiver. The pilot dressed it up a bit: "Hi, I am double-O seven and I am your pilot today. This is my license to kill. Please read this and sign it if you want to come along." Pretty lighthearted mention of a serious matter. Right. The waiver said ballooning is an inherently risky activity, possibility of severe injury or death, etc., etc. No matter what happens I promise not to sue, my family promises not to sue, my friends promise not to sue, people who have never even met me promise not to sue... The English couple were surprised by the waiver, apparently they aren't seen in Europe. Signing it wasn't a problem for me - I feel I have some idea of the risks involved in leaving the ground - but I always wonder how many other folks bother to read it before signing.

After we signed it was on to the passenger briefing. The pilot explained how the balloon would be inflated (with a large fan and shooting propane-fueled flames - seriously), instructions for boarding (climb in when told to do so) and so on. We were told to relax, have a good time, and not to worry. The only time we would have to do anything was at landing. At that point, we were to do EXACTLY what we were told to do. If there was no or little wind we would just come down, no problem. If there was a breeze we might scrape along for a bit, but no reason to panic. You can grab here or here. If the wind picked up the landing might be a little rough and the basket could tip over and be dragged along the ground but STAY IN THE BASKET. The basket and the struts holding up the burner would hit the ground, not you, and that's what would give you protection. so STAY IN THE BASKET. Most importantly, STAY IN THE BASKET because just after landing there is still some lift in the balloon. If one person jumps out the basket is suddenly 150 or 200 pounds lighter, everyone else shoots back up into the air, and at that point no one is in control. And that's when people get hurt. "So STAY IN THE BASKET until I tell you it's OK to get out."

OK, I got the hint.

While all this was going on the ground crew guy was bustling around, inflating the balloon with a big box fan. By the end of the pilot's speech it was starting to look like a balloon instead of a pile of laundry and we all got into the basket. A couple shots from the burner and we lifted off, drifting slowly across the field. The pilot and the ground crew talked back and forth for a bit as we floated along just off the ground at a slow walking pace. When the pilot was satisfied everything was OK he reached for the burner again and up we went. We didn't shoot up into the air. We went up slowly, gradually, floating over one of the many thousands of golf courses that surround Phoenix.

 Just after lift off. I enhanced the contrast slightly for a better view, as it was also just after dawn and not quite full daylight yet.

This is one area where ballooning is different than powered flight. Ultralights might be low and slow, but not this slow and not often this low. General aviation airplanes are seldom below 1,000 feet, and for them 100 mph is considered slow. I was taught that unless you had a reason to fly very low when you take off you get UP - you get altitude so if something goes wrong you have time to fix it, and you need to keep moving to generate lift so you can stay up, but balloons are different. You don't have to keep moving to keep airborne. So there I was, just off the ground, and probably the most jittery person in the basket because all my training is telling me we need more altitude and speed. (Years later I found I had a similar reaction in a hovering helicopter – my training and experience keeps wanting them to move forward, I’m not comfortable with an airspeed of “zero”)

The pilot looked over at me and said "You're used to airplanes, I can tell. Stop looking for a seatbelt, you don't need it."

I forced myself to relax. Look! We're floating! Neat-o! After a few deep breaths my brain figured out that this new way of getting altitude was OK after all and I started to enjoy the ride.

Balloons are quiet. I had been told they were silent and that's not actually true. There is always a soft background hiss from the burner, which becomes a roar when the pilot opens the gas and shoots flame up into the balloon to keep the hot air inside it hot and the balloon buoyant. You're standing in a wicker basket with other people, and like all wicker furniture it creaks a little bit when you shift your weight. There's the sound of your fellow passengers moving around to get a better view. Conversation is easy most of the time, no shouting required though you might need to raise your voice when the burner is turned up.

Sounds travel upward from the ground as well - cars, doors opening and closing, workmen building houses with hammers and saws. If you're low enough, you can eavesdrop on conversations taking place below. A thousand feet isn't that much distance - horizontally we know that, it's only when the distance is vertical that it seems so much farther. Most of the ride we were much lower than that.

I had also been told that there is no sense of wind in a balloon. This is almost true. In a balloon you travel with the wind and since you're moving along with the air mass instead of through it there is no relative wind. However, when you rise or descend through different layers of air you can encounter air masses moving at different speeds. The technical term for that is “windshear”. Most people seem to associate windshear with violent weather, but you don't fly balloons when there's much breeze at all, so it's very gentle windshear - "breezeshear" I guess you'd call it - just a hint of moving air as you go up or down. Only if you watched the scenery were you aware of the ground sliding by.

I learned how you steer a balloon. You rise to catch the wind going one way, descend to catch it going another. This doesn't mean you can turn around and go back the way you came since you don't get to choose which way the wind blows, and you go whatever speed the breeze does so you have no control over your speed. If there really is no wind when you go up you just stay in one spot relative to the ground and imitate an elevator. Even so, the pilot had a surprising amount of control, which he was happy to show off for our entertainment. He followed a dirt road through several curves, flew directly over haystacks and other landmarks, and talked about ballooning competitions where you tried to get as close as possible to a target by using the small breezes available.

  About this time we started singing "Follow the yellow dirt road, follow the yellow dirt road..."

It was quite different from the uncontrolled drifting I expected. I was beginning to see the attraction in ballooning, and that there was skill involved. The pilot really was a pilot and not just a glorified passenger.

We went up a couple thousand feet. I must suffer from fear of heights in reverse. The higher up we went the more comfortable I felt. Maybe it was all that powered-flight experience telling me I was safer at a higher altitude. Maybe it was because the temperature dropped down to around 80 degrees. Maybe I'm just an airhead. My fellow passengers weren't so eager to look over the side of the basket at that point although it didn't bother me.

We passed over a small airstrip and watched a biplane take off below us. He climbed up past us and turned away. I had seen planes flying from above while in other planes, of course, and Chicago has skyscrapers over a thousand feet tall where you can stand and watch planes fly along the lakefront at your eye level or lower but this was different. I was standing in mid-air - no blast from a windstream or window glass between me and the view.

It was quite a view. When I asked the pilot told me visibility was around 80 miles that morning. 80 miles! Back home we consider 10 miles to be clear weather. A major reason for the difference was humidity. Phoenix, being in a desert region, has very dry air. Chicago, being next to a huge lake as well as having significantly higher rainfall, is much more humid and the water vapor suspended in the air does obscure distant objects. The morning of this ride there was a pink, ground-hugging haze visible in the distance but that was dust, not humidity. Once above the dust layer, which only extended a few hundred feet vertically, the was even clearer.

Several other planes went past us, under us, over us. Our own private and impromptu airshow. Our pilot spoke into his radio and I heard him talking to Sky Harbor airport, the big commercial hub for Phoenix, reporting our position. Hmm... that explained the fancy Mode C transponder. Up here, if you turned away from the sprawling suburbs below and looked out towards the mountains, farms, and natural landscape it was easy to forgot how close we were to a large city and major airport.

I looked at the pilot, I looked down at the ground beneath us, noting that there was not only a paved runway down there but also some VERY large airplanes, then looked back at the pilot. “Do you often bust Class B airspace in a balloon?”

The pilot blinked at me, then said “You’re a pilot! You must fly airplanes.”

I admitted I was and did..

He smiled. “You’ve been holding out on me. If I had known that I would have put you to work on this trip.” He paused, then added, “But I should have known when you were more comfortable up high than near the ground. Airplane pilots are like that.”

At that point he had to explain again to the air traffic controller that we were in a balloon, he could not move faster, though he would be happy to lift us up out of the way of any airplane traffic in the vicinity. That was, in fact, what he did so we drifted past Sky Harbor Airport looking down on the big, fast jets taking off and landing.

(No, he wasn’t supposed to deliberately drift into Sky Harbor airspace but while he had control over the balloon that control was definitely limited. Apparently, winding up where you aren’t supposed to be is an occupational hazard for balloonists. We only brushed the edge of the airspace, we didn’t plow through the middle of it.)

We descended a bit and the pilot to looked for a place to land. This is where steering skill became important. We had drifted over a Native American reservation which wasn't the ideal spot to land. Seems that the tribe wanted to know seven days in advance when a balloon planned to land, and where, and if they weren't so informed in writing they had been known to confiscate the balloon. As the pilot said, he didn't know even a day in advance where he was going to land, much less a week, which made prior notice a little impractical.

  Seems we were always drifting into someone else's airspace on this trip. To the left is the Native American reservation, which is sort of scrubby green with a large white building. To the right is part of the Greater Phoenix metropolitan area, which is sort of brown.

He picked up the radio again and talked to the ground crew guy in the truck, who had been following us on the ground and keeping track of us all this time, and discussed landing sites. They agreed on a general area. The pilot pointed out the truck and trailer below making a turn at an intersection.

  You can see the chase vehicle on the road in this picture, along with a shadow of a ballon and the shoulder of one of the English tourists. We could wander wherever the wind blew but the poor guy in the SUV had to somehow find a route on the ground to keep us in sight.

The pilot steered us over outer suburbia. He pointed at a postage-stamp sized vacant lot in the distance and said "There. We are going to land there." By this time I no longer doubted him. I trusted him to take us over the houses and plunk us safely down in that vacant lot. Workmen nailing together the attic of a house were surprised to see four people go by at roof level, waving and saying hello. The pilot lowered us to within a foot of the ground on one corner of the lot then let us drift along a little further so when he collapsed the balloon it wouldn't wind up across a road or on top of the people building the house.

  Somewhere down there is our landing spot. Really, I'm not kidding, somewhere near the center of that image, it's a teeny weeny empty lot down in there between all the buildings.

We touched down gently, hardly even a bump. We were good passengers and stayed put as instructed while the pilot worked with the balloon. The pilot looked at me and said "OK, you get out now but you other two stay put for a minute." I hopped out, and everybody else followed in their turn as instructed.

  As you can see, given the size of the balloon, the vacant lot we landed in wasn't particuarly big. By the way - it's OK for the guy in the picture to be out of the basket - he's part of the ground crew, he knows what he's doing.

The pilot and the ground crew guy deflated and folded the balloon back up into a hassock and an oversized laundry basket again. After the balloon was put away they pulled a table, basket of muffins, and a bottle of champagne out of the trailer. Ah...breakfast!

While we munched muffins and drank champagne the pilot gave us a brief history of ballooning and told us how balloons and champagne came to be associated with each other. In a word: bribes. Back in the late 1700’s (yes ballooning is that old) The Montgolfier brothers and other ballooning pioneers used to carry a bottle of champagne with them to appease the mobs of frightened peasants that tended to appear whenever an early balloon - large, strange, and full of smoke and fire - landed in a field. Apparently the peasants were given to stabbing these strange, monstrous things with pitchforks and they weren't always aware that there were passengers on board, or careful about letting the passengers get clear before attacking. A bottle of champagne went a long way to convincing them that the "monsters" were not only harmless but even friendly.

Our pilot said that these days he didn't worry about pitchforks, just irate homeowners calling the local police about the lunatics in the field across the street playing with acres of gaudy fabric and drinking in public.

We finished up breakfast and the pilot dropped us off back at our hotel. There was a painful moment when it came time to pay for the fun - aviation isn't cheap, we all know that. What makes heaven paradise is that they issue you a pair of wings and after that the flying is free.

After the money was handed over I went off to work. I was on duty at 9am, as promised and had a very uneventful day. Which was OK, as the morning had had a nice dose of adventure.

  This is an interior shot of the partially deflated balloon. I was standing upright when I took this picture, so you can see that even partially deflated the interior was still quite large. Those large lumps are essentially air bubbles trapped under the fabric.

© Copyright 1996 all text and photos

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