EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in the “I want Alex to work for me” series. If you would like for Alex to spend a day working at your business, send an email with contact information to Daily Light Editor Neal White at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The hot air balloon is believed to be the oldest successful flight technology to carry humans. It is part of what is known as balloon aircraft and made its first successful launch in 1783 in France by pilots Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent d’Arlandes.
That hot air balloon was actually created the year prior by the Montgolfier brothers. As we launched into the Ellis County skies, I turned to one of my basket mates who was, it turned out, afraid of flying and said, “You know, the guys who invented the hot air balloon didn’t ever try it out themselves. They had someone else do it.”
I don’t think she heard me because she just buried her face into her husband’s back, thus turning away from me.
That seemed like a good time to get more facts. The balloon itself, also known as the envelope, weighs roughly 400 pounds. The gondola or, basket, weighs roughly 800 pounds. Ours was a six-person basket but there are some balloons that can carry a 16-person basket. Including the double burner, a fuel tanks for propane, the six passengers (and, yes, this is when you do size up your balloon mates) with the 140,000 cubic feet of heated air, the weight of the balloon tops out around 8,000 pounds.
“And how high does this thing go?” I wonder. I’m asking because many of us had a pretty big breakfast before we launched and we, meaning me, really should have pushed away from the table at the third pancake. Now our very existence could hinge on that last pancake.
“It’s OK. You’ll work it off,” said Deborah Rhodes, vice president of Balloon Rides by Wayne. She is also the flight coordinator, chase crew driver and lackey. She was not kidding when she said I would work it off as I and two other staff members hauled the balloon from the van, carefully stretching out the magnificent balloon to its full length of 140,000 cubic feet. This light-weight and strong synthetic fabric is actually sewn together in panels and it is imperative that it is strategically placed as air, blown in by a giant don’t-get-too-close-or-it’ll-suck-out-your-hair fan, fills the balloon.
While eager passengers take pictures of the balloon as it fills and rises, pilot Wayne Standefer, owner of Balloon Rides by Wayne and seasoned pilot of 22 years with more than 4,000 hours of flying balloons, airplanes and helicopters (you better know I checked him out before I climbed into the basket), rechecks all the equipment. Before any of us know it, we are clambering into the basket and it is then that I recall something I read on the website: “Your day starts early in the morning and the entire experience lasts about three hours. Losing something as large and colorful as a hot air balloon sounds impossible, but it can happen. For this reason, the chase crew has a very important job that consists of navigating the roads while using radios to communicate with the pilot and keep the balloon in sight. The crew often helps identify potential landing spots for the pilot.”
So, again, I ask, “How high does this thing go?” I forgot to write my will. Lisa, the woman standing next to me, still hasn’t taken her face out of her husband’s back and before I can ask, “Have you ever crashed?” we are aloft. Later, I will learn that there are far, far fewer “crashes” in the United States as hot air ballooning is heavily regulated. Most of the catastrophes in Europe are the direct result of flying into power lines where there were no guidelines, required flight patterns and licensed pilots.
Things change so quickly, however, that Wayne cannot even answer my question. That’s OK because I’m too busy looking around to see if I can see the chase van and I hope Deborah is still watching us. Lisa suddenly pulls away from her husband and peeks around. We are not flying but floating. It is a wondrous, glorious feeling. But more than this, it is quiet. As we glide silently over the treetops, over neighborhoods and then farm land, it is remarkably peaceful. I forget about the chase van as we are lost – lost in a sea of tranquility! At several hundred feet above ground, there is a communal feeling in the basket of awe and relaxation. Soon enough, we are chatting and joking as our pilot regales us with stories of “the things you see way up high!” He is entertaining and informative as he also explains the mechanics of flying and the hot air balloon and before we know it, it is time to land.
As Wayne tells us how to brace ourselves for impact, explaining that while minimal, sudden wind patterns can radically change how we land, Lisa and I both begin nervous giggling. Moving at only nine miles an hour, it feels as though we are going much faster as our basket meets the ground. Sure enough, we are suddenly lifted as soon as we touch ground and the basket is carried another 20 feet. This time we land heavily and the basket tips, putting Lisa and I underneath everyone. From the ground, Lisa’s children are cringing. The flight had been an anniversary present from all nine of her children. But they also knew she was afraid of heights and flying and so they had hoped for smoothing sailing all the way. But as we lay beneath a pile of people, “we could hear you laughing from the road,” Deborah later told us.
As we army crawl our way out, Lisa’s children were already running toward her and Lisa was beaming. What better way to overcome the fear of heights or flying? Truly, it is the only way to fly … and land.
Balloon Rides by Wayne serves Ellis County and beyond. For your own experience, contact www.balloonridesbywayne.com or call 469-644-4576.
Now residing in “the nicest city in Texas,” Alexandra Allred is the author of numerous books, including White Trash, Damaged Goods and the Allie Lindell series. Visit her website, www.alexandratheauthor, or Twitter @alexandraallred but always check out her column the WDL as she ponders all things Waxahachie and beyond its borders.