Friday, July 04, 2008

Thank God We're On The Ground

As we road in the van to the launch site, Ken fretted. “I don’t like the look of the tree tops.” The new spring growth waved in the northerly breeze.

Four of the five of us scheduled for the evening balloon flight had known the disappointment of a canceled flight. We all silently hoped the wind would diminish. Ken joked that he had called Darlene so many times to cancel previous flights that she had begun to refuse his calls. Monica had been planning a flight as a celebration for her husband Mark’s July 2nd birthday – his birthday in 2007. Today’s date was June 24, 2008. This would be Mimi’s first balloon reservation. Twice in Arizona and once as recently as two days ago, weather and wind conditions forced the disappointing cancellation of my scheduled hot air balloon rides. Would the jinx be broken?

When we reached Seaway Golf Course, Ken instructed one of his crew to release a helium filled party balloon. We strained our eyes to watch blue color balloon against the blue sky. First, it rose straight above us. “It’s not high enough to be in the wind yet,” Ken calculated. When the wind pushed the balloon east, Ken paused and walked away. “Send up another one in five minutes,” he instructed his crew. He watched second blue balloon with a trained eye. “Let’s get ready. It’s marginal, but we’re going up. Might be a short ride. We’ll see when we get up there.”

Ken put Mark and I to work holding on to the rim of the balloon neck. He positioned two high powered fans to blow air into the balloon cavity. One of the crew strained to stretch the balloon full length across the golf course as it inflated. The other fellow looped ropes from the balloon onto the basket, a basket that looked way to small for six adults even though we’d all be standing for the flight. The balloon filled with air and my arms ached as I stretched to hold onto the neck. “You can let go now,” Ken shouted over the noise of the fans. I had just enough time to snap a few photos of the balloon prone on the ground before one of the crew caught my attention, “Head to the basket. Ken’s going to want take off quick.” I ran to the basket, just as Ken pointed to me and said, “Climb in here, right past me.”

The extended lenses of my Canon Sure Shot poked him hard in the belly. My left foot came down with my full weight on top of his as I moved on command. Ken ordered the others, “Get in the basket. Quick!” They scrambled. Ken extended a steadying hand and someone on the ground boosted more than one lady’s butt into the basket. Quickly, he showed us how to wrap our arms around the basket poles for lift off. Then, I heard the deafening whoosh of the propellant flames and felt their heat. We rose off the ground in a steady gentle ascent. “We broke the jinx,” I laughed curbing my usual exuberant “Whoopee!”

Gradually, I could only see the eyes of the crew member peeping over the basket rim. Then, he let go; and soon, he grew smaller and smaller just like the trees and houses below us. Gently, we floated upwards. A wind began to carry us north. As we moved, the balloon cast a shadow on the tree tops. The view stretched for incalculable miles. Farmers’ fields made patchwork quilts in hues of green and brown. Furrowed fields and plowed crops made geometric patterns in the earth. Lakes looked like blue squiggles surrounded by green. Grazing cows appeared to minuscule toys.

Looking up, the balloon against the early evening sky was just as magnificent as the view of the ground. Its vibrant rainbow of colors contrasted with the blue sky. And, the periodic burst of the flame keeping us aloft gave off an orange-yellow glow.

There was little noise up this high. Occasionally, one of the passengers made a comment about the beautiful scenery or simply sighed in utter contentment. The whoosh of the propellant release became as rhythmic as an ocean wave. I learned that dogs don’t like this sound. It set several to barking. Surprisingly, I could hear their bark but not the sounds of the children running excitedly in the yard alongside their pets.

As our pilot, Ken worked hard. He wasn’t watching the scenery. His eyes watched the flame. He monitored our directional drift. He communicated by radio with his ground crew. He didn’t want us to drift over the St. Lawrence River; and, when it appeared that the winds might carry us that way, he prepared for our decent.

“Whatever happens,” Ken coached sternly, “stay in the basket. Do not get out of the basket until I tell you to get out.” He waited for us to acknowledge his command. He reminded us to wrap our arms around the stems of basket as we had done for take-off. “Hold on tight. And once again, stay in the basket.”

“You’ll feel a bump. We might get dragged a bit. Just stay in the basket.” Ken said for a third time.

The landing hit hard against the ground. The basket tipped. It skidded across the putting green of a local golf course sending disbelieving golfers scattering. The basket created a divot bigger than any golf club.

Our momentum slowed after two bumps. That’s when I could see the eyes of one of the crew members, peeping over the edge of the basket. This was our third, more gentle bump. Now, I could see both crew members straining to hold the basket down on the ground.

One-by-one, Ken ordered us out of the basket. I was first. My exit was as ungraceful as my previous entrance had been needing a boost and bumping an unidentified someone fairly hard. The other tumbled out clumsily too. Ken was last to crawl from the basket that now rested on its side. The balloons rainbow of colors lay on the ground too in a deflated carpet of color.

A smiling Ken called us all over to him. “I want to lead you in the balloonist prayer,” he said solemnly. “Thank God, we’re on the ground!”

He waited for our laughter to stop, and then he shared the true balloonist prayer. Keeping with ceremony, he popped the cork off a bottle of Champagne to celebrate a safe and memorable flight.

June 24, 2008

Champagne Hot Air Balloon Adventures

Alexandria Bay, New York


The Balloonist's Prayer
The winds have welcomed you with softness.
The sun has blessed you with his warm hands.
You have flown so high and so well
that God joined you in laughter
and set you gently back into
the loving arms of Mother Earth.

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