Friday, October 07, 2005
This morning we woke up really early - like 4am early - so we could beat the traffic and make it to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta early enough for our balloon ride. We got there around 5:30 and checked in with Rainbow Ryders. After a quick trip to buy gloves for Kate and Leslie (it gets pretty cold in the desert before sunrise) we headed off with our group to the balloon launch site. It was overcast with a thick layer of clouds at about 2000 feet and the winds were from the north at around 8 MPH.
Before the tour balloons go up, the Dawn Patrol takes off. That is a number of balloons that take off before sunrise and, among other things, give the balloon pilots an idea of what the winds are doing. They look like giant lightening bugs -- glowing occasionally and hovering over the desert, watching as the other balloon start to inflate.
I had read about how hot air balloons get filled up but it was fun to watch. First they lay out the envelope (the balloon part) on the ground with the gondola at the small end. Then they hook up the envelope to the gondola and tip the gondola on its side. They use large fans to start to fill the envelope up with air and once it gets pretty full, they start firing the propane burners to heat the air inside the envelope. At this point, it starts to rise and the gondola stands upright again. The passengers climb in and once the pilot is given the go by the launch coordinators (or zebras as they're called since they are wearing football referee shirts) the ground crew releases the ropes and off they go into the sky.
We were in the second hop so we got to watch our balloon take off and then we jumped into a chase van and started to follow. When it isn't cloudy, balloons in Albuquerque can take advantage of what is known as the Albuquerque Box - winds close to the ground are from the north but as you get higher, they change directions so you can start a ride to the south, then climb up higher and head back to where you started. With the cloud cover, though, there was no safe way to get high enough to head back north so the balloons just went south.
The van chased the balloon for about 40 minutes, expecting it to come in near a quarry but the winds pushed it farther east so we were off again to try to find a landing spot. We stopped at a vacant lot near a hotel and all ran to greet the balloon - greet is a friendly term, really we ran to try to grab it as it skidded and bounced long the ground in relatively high winds. We all held on to the gondola while the passengers from the first hop climbed out and we climbed in (there were 10 passengers in each hop, plus the pilot). After a near miss by another balloon skidding in for a landing, we were off on our own flight.
I've heard that riding in a balloon is totally different from other types of flying but I didn't really understand this until we took off. There was no vibration and no engine noise (except for the occasional blasts from the burners). We just floated up and away flying between 100 and 1000 feet above the ground. We could hear people on the ground as they yelled to us and we heard a LOT of dogs who were totally freaked out by this thing flying overhead. We rode south across I40, over the University of New Mexico and were headed towards the airport.
Now the tricky thing about flying in a balloon is that while you have control of the up/down thing, you have no control of that whole horizontal axis. The last thing you want to do is fly by the airport with planes coming in for a landing unless you can get high enough to be out of the way and that is at about 3000 feet. With the clouds at 2000 feet today, it was pretty important we find a place to land before we get to the airport. Eventually we saw a field at an elementary school that looked like it would work and the pilot radioed to the chase van to meet us there. We came in just over the fence and the guys on the ground grabbed a line that the pilot tossed to them and we came down, skipped along the ground a bit and came to a stop.
Now, when a hot air balloon lands at your school and you are about six years old, you're going to go running to see what's going on and sure enough about 10 six year olds came running up as we climbed out and the balloon started to deflate. They helped us pack the envelope into a big bag and we loaded the envelope and the gondola into the trailer and we were out of there in about 15 minutes.
It was a really great trip. If you ever get a chance to do it, you should take that opportunity to fly like the birds do. While it would have been even better to have clear skies the hope is that the clouds will break for tomorrow's mass ascension - 700 balloons all taking off from the same field. Now that is a photo op.