Most people are used to flight on jets, big ones, where becoming airborne happens after a long taxi, a roar of the engines, and a mile or so of furious speed. Then, the jet screams into the sky and banks hard away from the airport. In a balloon, flight is markedly different. I held open the propane line and before anyone knew it, without any noise or rush of speed, the balloon lifted off, and onlookers below were waving at us. My passengers were about to see Plano from a totally new perspective.
The Joys of Sunrise
I call this a “sunrise” balloon ride but in reality almost all hot air balloon rides are sunrise journeys. That is because sunrise is typically heralded by the day's calmest winds. Calm winds and good weather are precursors to hot-air balloon flights, and that is why we scheduled this morning. When I contacted the National Weather Service in Dallas, I received detailed wind summaries for the air over Plano, as well as a forecast for the coming day. The world of balloon riding is an early one.
A balloonist for just two years, I got my start by taking a job as a sort of balloon gopher. Though only the pilot is needed to guide the craft, there is also a support team on the ground to help with herding the clients, filling the balloons, and then meeting the balloon as it lands, only to deflate it, pack the ensemble up and drive back to the storage facility.
A year ago, I opened Balloon Adventures, though by now I had many flights under my belt. Plano is good for flying because of the fine weather, open space, and yuppie market base, which draws a good crowd of individuals who enjoy unique outdoor activities. I have one big, brightly colored balloon and two different sized baskets that I am able to book for at least three months in advance.
Plano sits at 685 feet above sea level, and I have clearance to fly as high as 5,000 feet. This morning we rise briefly to 3,000 feet; the surrounding ranch land cattle eyeing us. Plano appears like a tidy, small town. Up high, surprisingly, it is barely colder than down on the plain below, and the wind is strangely calm. It is serene, but in a tenuous sort of way; only the thin walls of the basket separate us from the empty space beyond.
Occasionally, I pull the trigger and let out a stream of flame-heated air. Hot air balloons work on the principal that the heated air pools within the balloon, make it lighter than the air around it. As the air cools the balloon falls at a rapid though mostly unnoticeable rate; let in more flame and a moment later the balloon levels, then rises.
My balloon, “Dream Chaser,” is ninety feet tall and 80 feet wide, it holds 245,000 cubic feet of air. Looking up into the balloon makes me slightly dizzy. On board this morning are friends from California, plus three locals; a reporter, a sound tech and a six-foot tall runway-quality camera woman. They are here from Television channel 8, to do a story on the growing popularity of hot air ballooning.
At 5,000 feet we drift with the breeze, north, then east. Below, fallow meadows with a thin coat of dew lie silent. Ahead lies the City of Parker, site of the famous Southfork Ranch and home of TV’s Ewing family; the townships of Murphy, Farmersville, and Lavon Lake are close by. Some even swear they see the legendary J.R. on the front porch of the Southfork main house and he’s waving! All around smaller lakes and cow ponds dot the landscape.
The Loving Arms of Mother Earth
I rotate the basket using a web of ropes inside the balloon, which when pulled, opens shutters to allow air in. But the aircraft itself is not steerable unless I can find a favorable current of air that goes where I want it to. Forty-five minutes into the flight, I begin to lower us to farmland on the prairie bowl community of Blue Ridge. There is open land ahead, but the wind is not taking us there. I call my ground crew on a radio and they speed to Blue Ridge to meet us. The balloon won't make it to the open space I have sighted, so I lower it gently onto a rise in a long dirt road. People come out of their homes to wave at us, and one woman, still in her nightgown, holds up a tiny girl and shouts, “At first we mistook you for a skydiving elephant.” Then, I shuck out a rope, and the two guys on the ground grab the rope and pull us toward the house. The balloon sets down on the side of the road and we climb out. It's colder here on the ground.
As the support crew is deflating the balloon, packing it up, and waving to the occasional car that drives past, I get interviewed for the story; then pop the top off of a bottle of Champagne and pour a glass for everyone. The first balloonists, I tell them, were nearly attacked by frightened farmers who thought they descended from outer space; Champagne showed the farmers that the balloonists were civilized. I then recite a few lines from the poem, “The Balloonist:”
“The Winds have welcomed us with softness.
The Sun has blessed us with its warm hands.
We have flown so high and so well that
God has joined us in our laughter
As we set down gently back again
Into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”
Click to watch video: Hot Air Balloning