With the roar of burning propane sounding off inches above my head, the ground below me slowly sunk farther away. Oddly, there was no jarring shake to accompany a relatively quick ascent into the sky. There was no turbulence – not even wiggle from the light breeze. It was just the heat radiating from the nearby flame, the dry coolness of early morning mountain air, and, in between the periodic roar of ignited fuel, absolute silence.
It was around 7 a.m. on the first morning of the annual Labor Day Lift Off hot air balloon festival in Colorado Springs. Three of us, including a pilot, were quite snug in a small basket between two metal tanks of gas. Above us, a colorful balloon, dubbed "Flameboyant 2," trapped hot air, slowly rising and falling at the will of a man named Hank Humiston. Below us, there were thousands of people that started to look more like ants as we drifted upward and away.
By the time we reached our cruising altitude, dozens of balloons flanked us on every side, some higher, some lower, and some somewhere in-between. Mountains rose high in the west, while the afterglow of a waning sunrise dominated the curve of the horizon to the east.
"Keep an eye out for balloons rising below us," our pilot, Hank, directed his passengers as he focused on navigating our panoramic surroundings.
Sasha Cason and I tentatively peered over the edge of our respective side of the aircraft, thankful that nothing unexpected could be spotted creeping upward our way.
Hot air balloons are a unique way to fly for a number of reasons, one of which is the limited control on behalf of the pilot. The pilot is capable of moving the balloon up and down in search of favorable wind streams, but aside from that, the direction and speed at which the balloon travels is dependent on outside, natural factors.
Somewhere below us, a pickup truck filled with a crew of four zipped around the city. Each person in the vehicle played a part in getting our basket airborne and they were now playing a crucial role in safely getting us back to where we first left the ground. As the light breeze in the air tugged our aircraft along, spotters in the vehicle below led the chase, directing the driver down unfamiliar roads in anticipation of the balloon eventually dropping back to earth.
Drifting above an urban setting, uniform homes dotted the ground below. Playgrounds could be seen filled with energetic children along with hidden campsites scattered in pockets of overgrowth between busy streets.
Hank was seasoned, taking to the skies via balloon for more than a decade on more than 500 flights. He'd flown in a variety of conditions in places around the entire country. This wasn't his first rodeo, but even still, he couldn't help but stare into the distance stuck in the view. Given the amount of effort that goes into hot air ballooning, it's a sport that requires patience and passion – two things that Hank had plenty of.
As we moved along, slowly dipping closer to the ground before rising once again, Hank shared his favorite aspects of hot air ballooning with us between the rumble of burning gas. He likes the view. He likes the serene nature of the experience. And he likes watching people on the ground below react to the spectacle. We'd seen the view and felt the serenity already, and moments later, he was showing off the latter of his trio.
Over a neighborhood, we dipped down low, no more than a few dozen feet above tree tops and power lines. As predicted by Hank, people came rushing out of their homes after hearing the periodic roar of the balloon above.
Though we were likely interrupting family breakfasts and sleep cycles, no one seemed to mind. As the streets below filled with people still clad in their nightwear, enthusiastic waves and smiles were abundant. Of course, we waved back from the balloon for a brief moment before sailing on to the space above another typically quiet part of town.
Airborne for approximately 45 minutes, our time in the sky was coming to a close.
With onboard fuel dwindling, Hank started to look for a place to put us down. He spotted a narrow, but low-traffic neighborhood road between homes that would make a great landing pad.
As the balloon dropped out of the sky, Hank carefully judged our altitude and trajectory, gently dropping us between trees, fences posts, power lines, and parked automobiles in a perfect landing near the dead center of the street.
Within seconds, our vehicle-bound chase crew appeared, holding our still-buoyant balloon in place while the fabric slowly deflated and dropped to the pavement, soon to be packed back into the same bag the balloon came out of by the seven of us, along with a few eager neighbors that were happy to help.
With each helper grabbing a handle of the large balloon-filled bag, we hoisted our folded aircraft into the bed of a pick-up, placing it in a snug spot beside the basket that was carrying us through the sky moments before.
All seven of us clamored into the truck, eager to partake in the final moment of the experience – a celebratory champagne pop between the pilot, the crew and the passengers.
After all, one thing that comes with the lack of control over the direction of the balloon is an unpredictable landing in an often unpredictable spot. As is tradition in the hot air ballooning community, a toast of champagne serves as a sort of peace offering between the pilot and the landowner that was kind enough for the balloonist to peacefully put down the craft on their property. It's a tradition that is said to date back hundreds of years, when a strange aircraft landing out of the sky would have been something so foreign that it could be interpreted as devilish.
In this case, we had landed on a public street, meaning there was no landowner for us to win over. But a tradition is a tradition – a celebratory pop following a safe flight and an extra splash of champagne for us.
Hot air ballooning is an airborne experience that really sticks out among other high-flying options for a number of reasons. Unlike skydiving or paragliding, both experiences where the forces of motion tend to be felt in a big way, floating in a balloon is much calmer. Because no motion is felt (in most flying conditions) as the basket is carried around the sky, this also tends to be more pleasant for people that have a slight fear of heights.
A few things that might surprise you during your first take-off include:
– Due to the gradual nature of movement, it's hard to even tell when you're leaving the ground.
– The baskets are a lot smaller than you're expecting.
– The slow-moving views are surreal, which can tend to help when it comes to motion sickness and fear of heights.
– The flame is loud – but not constant. In between when the balloon is rising, things are extremely quiet.
If you're interested in checking out hot air ballooning, there are a number of places in Colorado to give it a try. I'd definitely recommend it. Our pilot for the day, Hank Humiston, operates out of Albuquerque and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.