The day of my much-delayed balloon flight began long before dawn. The weather appeared calm and clear as I made the 40 minute trek to our Rainbow Ryder check-in point. Prospective passengers signed waivers and mingled in the warehouse, as we waited for everyone to arrive and preparations to be completed.
Around 7 am, our assigned pilot (ours was Kris) rounded us up and we loaded into vans, heading to a nearby park which was to be our launch site for the morning. Kris gave us a preliminary briefing and the balloons were set up for launch. It was really going to happen this time! Woo-hoo!!!
The Rainbow Ryder crew prepped 5 balloons for launch. Ours was one of the larger ones, with room for 12 passengers. After my Balloon Fiesta experience, I felt practically like an expert as I watched the crew cold-inflate the balloon. Then Kyle began to carefully blast hot air into the balloon envelope to complete the inflation process. Once the balloon was fully inflated and the gondola was lightly bobbing, we quickly clambered in. A few adjustments, the crew cast off the lines, and we were away!
I expected the ascent to feel like an elevator, but it was like riding a soap bubble. The rise felt so gentle, almost imperceptible, only the rapidly shrinking ground indicated the rate of ascent. The winds were light as we drifted slowly toward the Rio Grande Valley. We could see the other balloons rising and floating around us. As we approached the frost-tinged trees lining the river, Kris piloted so closely that we actually brushed their tops. As we approached the river, he allowed the balloon to dip down and skim the water’s surface before gently rising again over the opposite bank. Wheeeee!
Then, Kris poured on the heat and we began to rise, higher and higher, until we were the highest balloon in the sky. We drifted over the city, watching as the sun rose higher over the mountain range. The ride was quiet, punctuated only by giggly conversation and the periodic warm WHOOSH of the propane burner overhead. There was very little apparent wind, since we were drifting with it. I was torn between just soaking up the experience and taking numerous snapshots in an attempt to capture it. I think I had a silly grin pasted on my face for the entire trip. It was fantastic!
All too soon, it was time to look for a landing spot. Kris had stayed in contact with our chase crew for the entire ride, so they were not far behind us. As we descended toward the mesa, the winds were higher than before. We flew quickly toward an open lot in a housing development under construction. We assumed the instructed landing position – standing facing forward, knees bent, gripping rope handholds. As we approached the landing spot, we narrowly missed a light pole, then the corner of a house and then bumped onto the ground! The 12 mph wind pulled us forward, dragging the gondola on its edge while the ground crew raced to grab lines and stabilize the rig as the balloon deflated. Just as the balloon envelope sank to the ground, the gondola slooowly tipped over onto its side. Touchdown! Check out the drag marks!
Laughing, we crawled out of the gondola and watched as the ground crew began to gather up the (now deflated) balloon. A few minutes later they jumped into action again as a second balloon landed not far from us. (That gondola tipped over too). That IS considered a normal landing, and isn’t unusual in higher winds. The crew called it a “sporty” landing!
The crew set up a table offering champagne, orange juice and cran-apple juice. I enjoyed a post-ride mimosa as we all toasted a successful journey. Kris, our intrepid pilot, presented each of with a lovely commemorative flight certificate. Before too long, the balloon rig was packed and loaded, and we all piled back into the van for the 20 minute ride back to the office. A spread of beverages and packaged snacks were available to nosh on, which was a nice final touch.
The ride was just magical – everything I hoped for and more! I’ll leave you with an Irish Balloonist prayer:
The winds have welcomed you with softness The sun has blessed you with its warm hands You have flown so high and so well That God has joined you in laughter And set you gently back again Into the loving arms of Mother Earth