When my alarm went off Friday morning at 4:30 a.m., I woke into a slightly strange world. I was just afraid enough of the morning's planned event that I didn't want to get up, and just excited enough that I couldn't be held by the fear. This morning I'm going on a balloon ride.
Now, I'm not really afraid of heights. At least, I don't think I am. But I've had trouble in situations where I'm high up. What usually happens is a mild panic attack, followed by deep dread and fear until I can convince myself I'm safe. So when my editor gave me this assignment, I was worried that I'd have trouble on the flight. Not that I was truly afraid, just that I was worried that I might have an attack and be unable to accomplish my job.
I got ready quickly, I needed to be at the airport in Prosser by sunrise. I had packed the camera bag the night before and grabbed my old bicycling jacket that can be scrunched up into a small pack to be worn around the waist. I hugged Eric tightly, not wanting to go, then finally got myself into the car and out on the road. The weather was perfect, calm and clear. Any hope that the flight might be canceled due to the weather evaporated before I got to the airport.
The drive is not that long, so I didn't have too much time to worry along the way. I found the airport with only one wrong turn, and a parking attendant with glow sticks directed me to the right spot to park. It was pitch black except for occasional headlights. I got my gear out and slowly walked down the line of cars. I said "good morning" to a guy just standing by his car looking as nervous as I felt, and we talked a little. He was volunteering for a crew and didn't know where to go just yet. Finally he noticed the grandstand and pointed it out, and I headed out there to see if I could meet up with my pilot.
The grandstand wasn't really that grand, but they were playing good music from the 50s and 60s, and I signed my waiver. The organizer told me who I was to ride with, a fellow by the name of Greg Miller out of Boise, Idaho. Then the organizer took off to deal with something else leaving me to wait and wonder.
I got to talking with some of the folks hanging around, particularly the people sitting in folding chairs they'd brought, waiting to see the show. One of them knew Miller, and told me his balloon was called "I'll Fly Away Two" and had a black top and colored stripes on the sides. Which didn't help that much, because although it was getting lighter the balloons weren't even unpacked yet, most of them. As we continued to talk, she spotted Miller in the crowd and pointed him out to me. Fortunately for me, he was wearing a distinctive orange sweatshirt and was thus easy to find.
Before she spotted him, I noticed two black helium balloons let loose, one at a time, and everyone started shouting "PIBALL!" My source explained that the piball (pilot ball) is a way of seeing the air currents just before you go up. Literally every eye was on those balloons as they rose.
I introduced myself to my pilot and he pointed out his crew and said to wait by his balloon, as the pilot's meeting was about to start. So I headed over and started snapping pictures along the way. The light was *almost* good enough to justify taking shots, and I was just hoping to get something worth publishing in the paper. I introduced myself to his crew, and they told me a little of what to expect, and then we talked a bit while waiting for Miller to come back. The balloon was partially rolled out and already connected to the basket. The lines were all set up proper, and the burner had been secured in place. When I first looked at the basket, all I could think was, "How on earth are we going to fit in that tiny thing?" It was minuscule. Well, I'd find out. I took pictures, lots of pictures, and waited.
I'm going to point out now that I also had my personal camera on me for the trip, and all pictures on my blog were taken with that camera. After I'd taken as many pictures as I could of a particular scene with the professional camera, I'd try to pull out my personal camera and get a few shots. The shots I got with my own camera were not nearly as good, but I still managed to get a couple of neat images.
The balloon next to us turned on their fan and started to inflate. The process is simple, inflate the balloon with regular air using a fan. Then heat the air with the burners. Then fly. It doesn't get much simpler than that, really. So I watched with great interest as the first balloon, next to us, inflated and then turned on the burners. I was shocked by how much heat the burners put out. I mean, I was expecting heat, but not that much. It was warm from 30 feet away. I wondered if I would be hot in the balloon instead of cool. My own balloon was inflating by that point, so I concentrated on getting pictures, and tried not to question anything.
I wish I'd thought ahead of time that I wouldn't need my camera bag on the flight. I should have left it in the car. The tiny space we had meant that it was a problem during the flight, which it should not have been. I should have stuffed my pockets with what I needed and just left the bag behind. I will know for the future, if I ever go up in a balloon again.
Anyway, once the envelope was inflated, the crew of I'll Fly Away lifted the basket up onto a frame that held it and the burner at the correct angle. Then Miller lit the burner, and the air inside the envelope slowly heated. Ok, it wasn't terribly slow. It seemed like it, but it wasn't bad. The balloon slowly lifted from the ground, and up into the sky. Then it was up! Stable and beautiful against the blue morning sky.
I got to climb in first, after Miller (who was in the basket when it tilted fully up). Then Miller invited a crew member along, since there was only the two of us. Which made it three, but it was fine. There was actually just enough room for three and my bag to fit just fine. Another balloon was practically on top of us, so we waited for a bit, then the ground crew moved us a little to get a clear space. This movement was a big deal to Miller, and turned out to have a major impact on our flight. The balloon next to us made the river... we didn't.
Going up I felt the first mild panic when we were about 50 feet over the ground. I grabbed the edge of the basket and took a couple of deep breaths, and looked out instead of down, as the women I'd talked with earlier had suggested. The feeling passed. The second attack was while I was trying to get a good shot of the airport and the other balloons launching. Again, I grabbed the edge of the basket and took deep breaths. I don't think the other two even noticed I was having trouble. The attack lasted only a few seconds. The third attack happened while we were passing over kids waiting for a school bus. This one lasted a little longer, because for the first time I actually was looking down when the attack started. Again, it was only 10 to 15 seconds, then it was gone for good. For the rest of the flight my only annoyance was the encumberance of my camera bag. By the end of the flight I was leaning over the side to get better shots, and utterly unafraid of looking straight down from the balloon to the ground.
There is nothing quite like a balloon ride. You are open to the wind, but there is no wind. You are in the sky, but the ride is so gentle that you hardly notice. You may as well be on the ground, it's so stable and solid... except for the fact that you are looking down at the world. And I say that it's stable and solid while you are standing in a wicker basket. Think about that. The basket creaked under us as the pilot moved around, but it still felt very solid. It was strange and beautiful.
I guess the best way to describe it is that you are not moving at all, it's the world moving around you. The balloon is suspended in the moment, and the world falls away, and rises, and strands you in the air. You aren't flying, you just are, and the ground eventually comes back and you land. But there is no sense of movement while you are up there. You are just there, everything else is moving around you.
Miller was determined to get to the river, where we could do a splash and dash. That's when the basket touches down in the river, and is carried a little by the current, and then the pilot heats the air and UP you go. But we didn't make it to the river, a great frustration to Miller, as more than half the other balloons did make it. We watched from afar as they dipped into the river. To make the frustration worse, most of the balloons that made it to the river also managed to get back to the airport, which I gather is unusual.
We ended up hovering over a turkey farm for a long long time. Another balloon set down in the field near us, and Miller said he didn't want to set down there because it was so wet. He kept trying to catch the elusive wind so it would carry us over the river, but we kept flying over that same field and farm for ages. While a balloon is at the mercy of the winds, the pilot can affect movement by getting to a particular altitude. Miller would spit over the side and watch to see how it moved, trying to get into a current that would carry us the way he wanted to go.
So we ended up hovering for a long time while our pilot attempted to get us to the river. The chase crew kept asking him where he was going, and when he would set down. We finally set down on the road next to the very wet field. A family was out watching balloons, and two men from the family grabbed the balloon as it came down and hauled it to the right spot on the road. After determining that the weeds alongside the road had dangerous stickers on them, the crew pulled the balloon into the next field over, and then the ride was over.
I got out (with some difficulty) and took more pictures as the balloon was deflated and put away. It was fun and amusing. There were nine people in the return car, they said, although my brain doesn't recall that many. There were more people in the back than I thought would fit. As we got back to the airport, the crew chief (who was driving) started blasting the William Tell overture on the truck radio.
At one point, a horse was spooked by us flying over and Miller called down, "easy there, easy, it's ok" and the horse calmed. The local cows completely ignored us. Dogs were barking constantly as we fly over. People waved from their houses, and we waved back. The man who owned the field we landed in seemed utterly delighted to see the balloons landing there, but didn't turn off the irrigation sprinklers. The family was happy to see us up close as well, although one little girl was a little overwhelmed by the balloon.
Would I do it again? Yes. I wouldn't make it a high priority, though. It was fun, but it was much like anything else. I suppose if I knew I'd get to the river, I'd be willing to try it once more. Maybe I'll get a chance if I stick around with the paper long enough.
So I got home surprisingly early, and settled down to write my report. I wrote the whole thing to be edited later, knowing that I couldn't post until after the weekend. Then I checked the pictures I got on my professional camera. The first few pictures were great, then I got to the images with sky in them, and saw some sort of squiggles on the image. It looked like dirt or dust, and I figured that it must be on the display. But as I flipped through, I found that the dust changed from picture to picture, so I panicked and called the photographer at the paper. He told me to bring the camera in to be checked.
Sure enough, there was a problem with dust, but he said it wouldn't be a big problem. It sure looked like a nasty problem to me, but there was nothing I could do about it. He did something to clean the camera and took my pictures off the card, and I went home, as I was working on Saturday for most of the evening, so I got most of Friday off. (Update: You can see and possibly purchase more of my balloon photos that I took with the good camera here, but you can also see the dust problem on some of them.)
Saturday morning I dragged Eric down to the launch, partly because I wanted better pictures for my spread in the paper and partly because I wanted him to experience the thrill just the once. I also really wanted a good picture of "my" balloon on my personal camera. Eric took my camera while I took pictures with the work camera, and Eric got this image for me...
I have a handful more images, but I haven't got them ready yet and would like to post this, so I'll probably put them up later, as I have time and inclination.