July 13, 2008
Up, Up and Away
Many years ago, when I was turning 40, my kids asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said "a balloon ride." They hadn't hit the double digits in age at that point, so that wasn’t exactly practical. But they didn't forget, and a decade later they surprised me with, whaddya know, a certificate for a balloon ride. That certificate has been pinned to my wall for a while. But Seattle weather weather has turned balmy, finally, so I called them up. Not so surprisingly, when I told Sarah I was going to make an arrangement to go flying, she wanted to go, too. Sabrina wanted to come watch. Today was the day.
The way it works it that you call them at 5:00 am (which, I'll just point out, means 5:00 in the morning). They tell you whether it's a go and tell you where they're intending to launch from. You drag your tired self or selves to their meeting place by 6:30. (AM.) Balloonists share with rowers a hypersensitivity to the effects of wind, and like rowers, they get up insanely early in order to have the wind working in their favor, i.e., not too strong, not too unpredictable. (As the sun heats things up, our man said, you get unexpected and unwelcome thermals, for example.)
At the office, there is the predictable amount of milling around, but eventually you pile into a van that's dragging a trailer, and they drive to their preferred take-off spot. In this case, it's an open lot next to a medical facility right in Snohomish. The vans act as chase vehicles, which in this case included Sabrina. There were two balloons, each hauling eight passengers and a pilot.
Basket and trailer
Then it's all hands on board, so to speak, and the assembled mob is enlisted to drag the balloon out of the trailer.
Unfolding the craft
The crew starts up a big ol' fan to inflate the balloon, which initially looks like a rainbow slug.
Huff and puff
When it's inflated enough, the pilot dude fires up the propane burners. The balloon turns itself vertical, and then it's time to go. The take-off couldn't be gentler. One moment your standing in a basket on the ground, with this behemoth of a balloon above you, and the next moment you're rising off the ground. And up you go.
Our fellow balloon just after takeoff
The balloon has no way to steer, of course, so the pilot's job is to control vertical ascent and descent in order to catch the small differences in the prevailing winds. (Well, breezes.) To go up, the pilot fires his propane burners, and the balloon rises. The trick there is knowing the latency; the balloon doesn't pop up like a cork in water or anything. To descend, the pilot yanks on a rope that opens a panel in the balloon to let out some of the hot air.
Putting the pedal to the metal
Dang, what a ride. I'm normally nervous about heights, which had worried me slightly, but it was no problem at all. We drifted serenely over Snohomish County, moving up and down as the pilot maneuvered the craft. Which did have some effect on the "serene" part, because that burner is loud. That aside, the ride is silent, and we could look down on horses in the pastures, guys fishing in the Snohomish (and their dogs splashing in the river), stuff like that. Everything looked clean and tidy from our altitude. The view was stupendous. We could see the towers of downtown Seattle in the distance, and could even see Mt Saint Helens all the way in the south.
We like this
Per the pilot, we had perfect conditions, so we drifted several miles further than the usual ride (so he said, anyway). The pilot had a field in mind where he wanted to land, and we descended so as to be able to hit the field. Tricky stuff, that. At one point we were low enough to scrape the trees next to the river, although a couple of shots of gas took us back up and over.
Coming in low
Hello over there
We did come into the field perfectly and had a landing that was just as gentle as our takeoff.
The other guys landing
Our chase crew was there, and they collapsed the balloon, took things apart, and got us to help them stuff it all back into the trailer.
Then it was back to the office for a champagne toast and a little snack. Excellent birthday gift, don't you think?
PS Sabrina took pictures and a some video. If you don't mind downloading ~4MB of video, you can see some of the setup and a landing as well.