The alarm goes off before dawn. It's easier for a morning person to crew on a balloon but it still seems too early. I get dressed quickly, down a cup of coffee and a quick breakfast and drive down to the balloon field. I'm hoping I can crew today and know that I may not get to.
Once at the field, I look for the person responsible for assigning volunteers to crew on a balloon. I'm told it's the tall man with the funny green hat. Once I get his attention, I ask him if there's anyone needing crew. As luck would have it, I'm assigned to a balloon along with a couple other people. After meeting the pilot, I see a small helium filled party balloon, called the "P Ball" floating up in the air. All of the pilots watch this small balloon to see how it reacts with the air as it drifts up, hinting at the air currents above them. The launch director reads the weather forecast from the National Weather Service. It's a great day to fly today!
Preparing a balloon for flight takes several people who must follow the pilot's instructions. The balloon envelope is laid out on the ground and then carefully spread out. Everyone wears leather gloves to protect the fabric and their hands. The gondola, or basket, is assembled with the vertical supports, burners and cables to hold it all together. The propane tanks are already in the gondola and the pilot connects the hoses to the burners. Once the gondola is ready, it is laid on its side and connected to the envelope. The pilot turns on a large powerful fan to start blowing air into the envelope to puff it up. The crew holds each side of the envelope's skirt open to allow the air to enter. The pilot checks the envelope to make sure the vents and other parts of the envelope are in good condition and ready to fly. Once there's enough air in the envelope, the pilot lights the burners and starts heating the air inside the envelope. It's very important for the crew to keep any part of the envelope out of the way of the burners. The heat of the burners helps keep the crew warm. Another crew member or two holds on to the crown line, which is connected to the very top of the balloon. This is one of the most important jobs for a crew
member. The crown line holds the top of the balloon down near the ground as long as possible to allow the air inside to heat up. Once the pilot decides there's enough hot air in the balloon, he crown line is slowly walked back to the gondola to allow the balloon to gently rise until the balloon is vertical and almost ready to lift off the ground.
Sometimes crew members are invited by the pilot to ride in the balloon, depending on the size of the balloon, and whether or not sponsors are already slated to fly.
Riding in a balloon is an honor and not guaranteed to any crew member. Climbing over the edge of gondola carefully, not touching the burner assembly, I stand in the gondola as the pilot watches above and to the sides to make sure no other balloons are in the way.
He asks the ground crew to hold the balloon down as he heats the air until the balloon becomes buoyant and almost ready to lift off. He tells the crew to let go of the gondola and with one more burst of heat from the burners, the balloon lifts off of the ground.
Flying in a balloon is not like any other flying machine. Other than the sound of the burners heating up and cooling off, and the pilot talking to the ground crew, the flight is silent. Since the balloon flies with the wind, there is no wind noise.
Peacefully flying over the ground, dogs are barking up a storm on the ground. Dogs almost always bark at balloons. We wave at people on the ground as we are awestruck at the scenery around us.
The pilot asks the passengers to let him know of any power lines or other dangerous obstacles, just in case he hasn't noticed. The only control the pilot has is either letting air out of the balloon to lower itself or heating air up to go higher. When the air is heated, it takes a few seconds for the balloon to rise so the pilot is careful not to overheat the balloon which shortens the service life of the envelope. The pilot controls direction and speed of travel by going up and down in the air to take advantage of the different layers of air, with each layer moving in a different direction and speed as he remembers how the "P ball" behaved.
The flight is peaceful and quiet and much different than flying in an airplane. Crew members who aren't flying form the chase crew and ride in the chase vehicle, which keeps in contact with the pilot by radio and tracks the flight from the ground. The pilot and chase crew discuss where to land and access the landing site, a site without nearby power lines or light poles. After landing, I climb out of the gondola and join the ground crew by holding the gondola down as another passenger takes my place. With a burst of heat from the burners, the balloon is in the air again. I join the rest of the ground crew until it's time to put the balloon away, usually before 10 am. Strong winds sometimes cause the pilots to bring the balloons down earlier and sometimes cancel ballooning altogether.
When the balloon is back on the ground for good, the crew helps disconnect the gondola from the envelope, push the air out of the envelope, and stuff the envelope in the large storage bag. The first time the crew gets to relax is sitting on the bag to compress the envelope into the bag. Everything is put back into the trailer, ready for the next flight. Now it's time for the newbie ceremony. Those who haven't ever flown initiated into the club. It’s a sacred rite that must be kept secret until it happens to you.