Floating in the Summer Sky

There’s nothing like floating four thousand feet above your house in a gigantic pink rabbit to make you truly appreciate the fact that a balloon gondola is essentially a big Easter basket with a quarter-inch-thick piece of wood for its base.

Let’s start at the very beginning…

When you’re on a balloon crew, you get used to early hours. The alarm goes off by 5 AM, and you have to be dressed in water resistant work clothes and in the park before six. Your basic sporting balloon requires a crew of about two or three people, but the Hot Hare Balloon – for which I’ve crewed nearly a decade – requires a minimum of twelve adults. First thing in the morning, those people are responsible for getting the balloon out of the trailer and assembled.


Note: all photos click to enlarge.

The “shape” balloons have dozens of long (up to six feet) velcro vents that are opened upon deflation to allow all that hot air to escape. The flip side of that is that they all have to be re-sealed before inflation.

The Bunny’s ears alone are as tall as a standard balloon in its entirety. They measure in at sixty feet long – the same size as the faces on Mt. Rushmore.

Someone revs up the massive fan (it has an airplane propeller in it) and inflation begins. It takes several minutes for the envelope to fill with air, during which time the pilot and crew chief get inside it to seal up the more technical bits and secure the necessary rigging.

As it inflates, people who know what they’re doing often crawl underneath the billowing waves of fabric to check for missed vents, tears, etc. – or to take unflattering, no-makeup photographs of one another through a haze of pink light.

Two tall men are stationed on the throat, holding it open so that the air goes in unobstructed, and keeping the lines out of the burner’s path once things heat up. Today, Dad and Ryan got that job. (I love doing throat, except that I’m not quite big and strong enough for the Bunny – I can do it in a pinch, but it’s really a stronger person’s job.) You can see the pilot in the lower RH corner preparing to start burning. She’ll heat up the cold air inside the envelope, causing it to rise and the bunny to come to life.

And then, if you’ve been a good little crew member, and you’ve worn your lucky balloon crewing hat, and you’re in the right place at the right time, something magical happens –

So there I was, about to take to the skies in a bouyant rabbit the approximate size of the Statue of Liberty and the approximate color of – well, frankly, there’s no comparison in the natural world to that particular shade of pink. Nor is there anything natural about certain of its… uhm… proportions.

I made my farewells, Glo got the go-ahead from the controllers, and one by one the crew members let go of the basket. We drifted at a gradual upward angle across the park for a moment and were airborne.

It’s a little bit difficult to describe the feeling of being in a hot air balloon. For one thing, because you are actually inside the wind, there is very little feeling of movement. No air rushing against you or anything. It’s also very quiet and still-seeming. You can hear other balloons’ burners go from time to time, and when you are close as we are to the pink and purple balloon in the picture below, you can have inter-balloon conversations without much effort. Sound carries very well.

The ground just sort of drops away without you ever even realizing that you’re going up, and the next thing you know you’re hovering in this incredible place where you are utterly out of control, in the hands of your pilot, the wind, and God, suspended in space by a big bag of fabric filled with heated air, in a wicker basket, connected by slender metal cords and – one hopes – a lot of science.

The shaped balloons take so much longer to assemble and inflate that we often are the last to launch. Boise’s spectacular box wind brings many of the early launchers back into the park, where they land in time for us to soar over their heads. There are usually competitions going on, usually dealing with the strategic dropping of beanbags on targets. The bigger shaped balloons have a harder time steering with that level of deftness, and so generally don’t bother. You just ride the wind, trying to get an idea where it will take you, completely severed from the outside world.

You’re up there, with four thousand feet of open air between you and the ground, and sud
denly those little wires and the pressboard platform become very important. The pilot moves from one side of the gondola to the other, and it shifts off-center. The sides on the long edges of the gondola go about waist-high. You try not to, but you can’t help but think that it would be entirely possible to overbalance and fall right out. As you pass over the swollen Boise River, the unbidden thought crosses your mind that this would be a helluva way to commit suicide.

This picture, taken by an Idaho Statesman photographer today – I just found it online – kind of gives you an idea of what I’m talking about.

Fortunately, I don’t have suicidal tendencies… but I do have an uncontrollable urge to take low quality, silent videos on my digital camera. My spastic scrolling doesn’t do a very good job of capturing the amazing sense of detachment and peace you feel up there. It’s like, you’re up here, and time is down there. Everyone is dashing around, driving to work, watering their plants, playing in the yard, walking their dogs – and up there, there is no sense of time, no sense of deadline.

 

Interesting trivia: from the air, you can’t really even see our house for all the trees. The only way I really found it was by locating the brightly colored row houses, and then looking for Ryan’s junker in the driveway. Voila! House!
 
 
After realizing that we weren’t going to make the university soccer fields, we began looking more seriously for a place to land. We dropped down to a very low elevation to try to catch the box back to the launch site, and everyone came out of their houses to watch. We were low enough that we could holler “good morning” down to people. Dozens of drowsy spectators – kids, parents, anxious dogs – ran out with camcorders, camera-phones, and mugs of coffee to watch and wave as we drifted past.
 
 
It soon became clear that we weren’t going to make it back to the launch site, so we had the chase crew load up and come out to the baseball diamonds. We were low enough, but were veering over a marsh, so we dropped the line and the crew hauled us back to a safe deflation area.

This next video not only shows the Bunny mid-deflation, but gives you a sense of scale.

 

As the Bunny collapses, everyone rips open the velcro vents to allow the air to escape. Odious walls of hot billow out of the openings. The novices recoil, but us oldtimers know that this is the cushiest it’s going to get for the next hour and embrace the opportunity to stand still sucking down the propane.

Finally, all the air appears to have left the envelope, and we have one extremely flat rabbit. (Talk about your road kill!) The crew seals as many of the velcro vents as they can get to, and then the rolling commences. Everyone gets about arms-length from one another and begins rolling the fabric as tightly as possible. It starts out pretty easy, but the fabric gets heavier and heavier the more you roll.

The next step involves lying down (ahhhh) and rolling on the envelope to squish any trapped air out of there. Many people find this to be the highlight of the trip. To me, the highlight is when skanky thirteen-year-old girls on the crew show up inappropriately garbed and position themselves in front of my camera. (Might I add that she and her friend were wearing flipflops? That’s an excellent way to lose toes.) (Hey, if I put this picture on MySpace, do you think I could make any extra money? J/K)

Back in the good ole days, we had to then pick up this entire thing and put it into a gigantic duffle bag, and then carry said bag back into the trailer. These days, we’ve gone high-tech and use a wheeled cart. When wearing shoes, the wheels on that cart can bruise or break bones if you get in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When all of the fabric is in the cart, it has to be smushed down so the top can be closed. A couple of wannabe grape-stompers get in on top and leap around under the impression that they’re accomplishing something – which may or may not be the case, depending on how heavy they air, how enthusiastic they air, and whether or not they are also indulging in a pillow fight.

Remember yesterday, when I showed you the picture of Ryan holding the throat open while the Bunny inflated? Well, as we were packing up, I noticed that he had something in his eyelashes. Turns out that “something” was actually the singed tips of his eyelashes, bleached blond and curling up like little velcro tips. It got part of his eyebrow, and a little bit of hair off the side of his head, too. Fortunately there was no real damage, and he wasn’t hurt at all – didn’t even know he’d been singed until I pointed it out.

Balloon crewing can be tough on men in or with our family. Dad has nearly been killed – well, the potential was there – two or three times, and just about got his head buried in the balloon cart this morning. My ex-boyfriend was doing throat one year and lost his grip on one of the lines. He reached in to retrieve it just as the pilot burned, and singed off every bit of his arm hair. Quite lucky he didn’t end up in
the emergency room.

Tomorrow, perhaps, some non-Bunny photos.

Class dismissed! Any questions?