Every morning, contingent upon weather conditions and the number of pilots who had volunteered to give rides, if someone in media wanted to experience flying in one of the balloons they would sign up in the media tent, give their total weight (including equipment) and wait to – hopefully – hear their name called. You didn’t know if your name would be called or if called what balloon you would be assigned to. I hit the jackpot! Not only was my name called but I was placed with the absolute best balloon, pilot and day for flying.
This was the morning of the flight of the nations mass ascension where each balloon that flew hung it’s nations flag from the side of their balloon. It was my great fortune to fly in the Nelly-B. A big pink elephant with her pilot Peter Van Overwalle from Belgium and Albuquerque crew chief, Paige Stubbs. He has been flying this incarnation of Nelly for 15 years but sadly this is her last season. She will retire in May of 2017. He didn’t know yet what her new look would be; I suggested something in my favorite color purple. Nelly and several other balloons at the event were made by the Cameron Balloons company out of Bristol, England.
They were quick and efficient getting this huge elephant with floppy ears and waving trunk up and going on this early chilly morning. It was nice to be near the burner since mornings out on the field were in the mid to upper 40’s! Once inflated it was time for me to climb into the basket, smile from ear to ear and await our turn to launch. Even though the balloons seemed to be practically on top of one another, the inflating and subsequent launches were well choreographed routines. Balloons may have touched one another on the ground but there was never any danger and we took off on cue. As our balloon rose into the air I felt like that scene from the Wizard of Oz where the Wizard’s balloon took off leaving Dorothy behind. It was a smooth and graceful ascent into the air and the next thing I knew there we were floating gently in the sky. The weather that morning was perfect with a soft gentle breeze. It was so peaceful being above the crowds and noise.
By this time the sun was coming up over the Sandia Mountains which was in and of itself a beautiful thing to see from the altitude we were at. We couldn’t contain ourselves and started to sing Here Comes the Sun. While I was going, carefully, from side to side in our basket of three to capture these images, our pilot was always on duty keeping us afloat and communicating with his ground crew via radio. I’m not quite sure how they tracked us but occasionally looking down I could see them on the roads bellow. The balloons that were once so huge as I looked up at them from the ground seemed like children’s balloons that had floated away from where I was in the sky. Perspective!
We flew over some homes where the dogs would go crazy barking and the residents would come out to take pictures. We waved at them and shouted hello. That was so cool to do. Flying over the Rio Grande I watched other balloons do a “splash and dash” which is lowering the balloon just enough to touch the water and then go right back up. The most a pilot has control over is up and down – the wind rules otherwise. I was told how many knots we were flying and I learned that besides making sure another balloon doesn’t get too close to you and vice versa, watching out for power lines is interesting because you cannot see them when high in the air. I looked down to test this and it’s true! I could not make them out from the air. What you can see are the poles and the spaces between them which is where the lines are. Peter said you learn to see the poles, know that the wires are in-between and adjust your flight pattern accordingly.
What goes up must come down and it was time to start looking for a place to land. We eventually settled on a residential area (people seem to be a bit used to balloons popping up in their subdivisions during this time of the year) and landed with just two easy bumps upright at the end of a cul-de-sac. A couple of the residents who were home at the time came out to take pictures and ask questions of the crew. Just as smoothly as the balloon was set up to fly, the pilot and crew broke it down and put it away. In order to facilitate the deflation of the balloon the pilot releases the parachute at the very top of the balloon and it begins to come down where the crew grabs it, squeeze the remaining air out and tie it off like a long braid. It then gets folded and put into it’s own carrying bag which is placed into the back of the trailer along with the basket and then it’s back to the launch field.
When crews return to the launch area they head for the refueling area for their tanks before everyone begins to set up for the after flight ritual of tailgating and there was some seriously good tailgating going on too. I was given a collectors pin of the Nelly-B and a certificate which states that I took a historical flight in her launching from Albuquerque and landing in Rio Rancho at a maximum altitude of 6300 feet with a flight time of just over an hour… a perfect experience!
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