A Family Adventure In The Sky

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by Mike Burkett

rim review

So, you've always wanted to take your family for a hot air balloon ride, thinking it would be the perfect way to make at least one dream come true for everyone in your clan, all at the same time.

Stop right where you are, bub.

The fact is that the dream of hot air ballooning is not shared by everyone. And the danger is that you may not realize this truth until you are 5,000 feet above the ground and one of your children is screaming, "I HATE THIS! I HATE THIS! WHEN ARE WE GONNA LAND? I HATE THIS!"

Believe me, you will never experience a slower descent to Earth, no matter how quickly your balloon pilot speeds up the process which in a hot air balloon maxes out at about two monumentally slow miles per hour, if the wind is on your side.

And it won't be. You can trust me on this.

Despite the sincerity with which my child expressed his desire to return to terra firma, his mood was not enhanced by the fact that, when our pilot was preparing to actually land, it was an emergency landing in a tree-laden field miles away from our actual destination.

All of a sudden, the boy DIDN'T want to land. He wanted to go back up into the sky.

Sheesh. You just can't please kids, you know?

As it happened, my very first hot air balloon trek took place last week over the state of Oregon, where I had taken my children to see their grandmother. It was she who shelled out about $600 to cover the adventure, including lodging, under the mistaken impression that it would be the perfect way to make at least one dream come true for everyone in her clan, all at the same time.

So the screaming didn't sit too well with Mom, either.

But hey, who was at fault here? I would say it was the adult who, as the children were being loaded into the balloon's basket, failed to ask, "By the way, is there anyone among us who might be really, really, really, REALLY afraid of heights?" ... followed by the query, "By the way, is there anyone among us who might be really, really, really, REALLY afraid of emergency landings in the world's most unwieldy flying machine?"

Obviously, I'm having a hard time disguising the fact that my first hot air balloon ride was a fairly disastrous experience. But I can easily imagine it to be an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime thrill for someone smarter than myself which, I'm starting to believe, would include just about everyone.

A lot of hot air

It was in France during the late 1700s when brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier after several failed attempts to get paper bags afloat with steam and various gasses managed to get a taffeta envelope filled with hot air to rise to the ceiling.

Eventually, the brothers managed to send a giant paper bag some 100 feet up in the air using gas obtained by burning a mixture of wet straw and chopped wool. They pushed their idea further via the "Seraphina" a 40-foot envelope made of wrapping fabric lined with paper, with multiple sections held together by some 2000 buttons.

The Seraphina's first public launch was held June 4, 1783. Lo and behold, the vessel was soon no more than a dot in the sky, some 6,500 feet up before it finally landed in the middle of a vineyard a mile and a quarter from where it had taken off.

Nothing breeds competition like success. So two and a half months later, the French physicist Jacques Charles sent up a hydrogen balloon from the Champ de Mars. It came to earth in a village 10 miles away where terrified locals tried to kill this "monster" from the skies.

The first "accompanied" flight with a sheep, a rooster and a duck on board was organized a couple of weeks later by the Montgolfiers. And finally, Nov. 21, 1784, Pile de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes climbed into a Montgolfier balloon for the first manned flight.

For almost two centuries, hot air balloons were virtually ignored until the late 1950s, when one was built as part of a United States Government research program. Constructed of man-made fibers and filled with air heated by a propane flame, it was this flying machine which signaled the birth of the modern hot-air balloon.

Flight check

In researching the 300-year history of the hot air balloon, I was struck by the fact none of the vehicle's founding fathers were dumb enough to launch their children skyward without first asking if they were afraid of heights. This did not cheer me up.

Neither did my pitiable attempts to distract my hysterical offspring by making hot air balloon small talk with the pilot. So it is purely for your own edification that I report his answers:

Q: How do you steer a balloon?

A: "Balloons simply float with the wind. The pilot can control the balloon's altitude to find a wind going in the desired direction, but you cannot fly upwind or crosswind. Preflight planning ensures the pilot knows which way the balloon will be traveling, and the pilot makes sure there are plenty of suitable landing sites downwind."

Q: Why don't balloons fly in the middle of the day?

A: "Balloons fly early in the morning, right after sunrise and late in the day, right before sunset. This is when the wind is calmest since the sun is low in the sky."

Q: How do you get back to where you started?

A: "A chase crew follows along in a van or truck. The chase crew is in radio contact with the pilot, so they can be there when the balloon lands or soon afterwards."

Q: How much do balloons cost?

A: "About the same as a car or boat. The most popular sport-size balloons cost from $18,000 to $25,000 or more. Support equipment radios, fan, extra tanks, tools, repair kit, etc. can add $2,000 to $ 5,000 more. You can also buy used balloons."

Q: How many hot air balloons are there?

A: "There are over 3,500 balloons and 4,000 licensed pilots in the U.S. There are another 1,000 or so balloons in other countries."

Q: What are envelopes made of?

A: "Rip-stop nylon is the most common material. Polyester and other fabrics are sometimes used. The lower portions around the opening are usually made from a fire resistant material like Nomex, similar to what race car drivers and firemen wear."

Q: What if you have to go to the bathroom?

A: "Since flights average about an hour or so, pre-planning pays off in this regard. As you can see, there are no bathrooms aboard the balloon."

Q: Do you often find yourself with passengers screaming things like, " "I HATE THIS! I HATE THIS! WHEN ARE WE GONNA LAND? I HATE THIS!"

A: "No, this is the first time. I think somebody neglected to ask a few basic questions before they got on board."

Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.

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