Over Labor Day weekend, a big event took place in Colorado Springs that drew hundreds of people from all over the country, and even a few people from outside the country—the Colorado Balloon Classic. The Balloon Classic is an annual hot air balloon festival that just celebrated its 36th year, and is the longest continuously-running hot air balloon festival in Colorado. The Balloon Classic group also happens to be an Infront client: we built their website (www.balloonclassic.com). They are a great bunch of folks, and we've really enjoyed being a major sponsor of the event for several years.
This year, I was generously given a set of tickets to ride Infront's balloon. Since it was almost my seventh wedding anniversary, the timing was excellent… and I was able to bring my wife along, which enabled her to cross out "ride in a hot air balloon" on her bucket list. So early on Saturday morning (Labor Day), we drove down to Memorial Park and met up with our balloon crew. Our crew was Buzz and Sharon Wills, who came all the way up from Amarillo, Texas for the festival and brought their own Balloon, the Second Wind, with them. (It was nice to know that we were in good hands—Buzz has been piloting hot air balloons for over 35 years!)
We unpacked the balloon, opened it up on the ground, held open the skirt and turned on a huge fan to fill it up with air, then turned on the burners to make the air hot, and launched it and flew away with all the other balloons. It was quite an event! There were balloons everywhere, and thousands of people stood around watching, taking photos, pointing and waving at us. It was almost surreal—like the ending of the movie Grease, where Danny and Sandy drive their car on the football field and the car lifts off into the air and everyone is left standing there waving, watching the happy couple fly away.
The ride was fun, and actually quite smooth. Smoother that I expected. And when the burner wasn't on, it was very quiet. In all, we were probably aloft for 10 minutes or so. I've gotta say—I learned a lot, and there were several aspects to riding in a hot air balloon that I wouldn't have expected. Here are a few of the things I learned, and some observations I made:
The actual "balloon" part of a hot air balloon is called the "envelope." I'll bet you didn't know that!
The burners are VERY hot and VERY loud. Ok, so this one's a little more obvious. Of course I expected it to be hot, but I didn't know that the the burners would be so loud.
You can smell propane burning. I guess this one is fairly obvious, but it's a lot more powerful then I would have thought. Since the propane is constantly burning as you fly, it smells like propane during the flight, which can make you feel a little woozy.
A hot air balloon will go where the wind blows. The pilot can't control very much; a pilot can make a hot air balloon go up in altitude, or down—that's all. He can do some tricky things by catching air currents blowing in different directions at different altitudes, but ultimately, the wind will determine where you go, how fast you go, and where you land. For example, on our flight, we flew southeast for about 2.25 miles. Our pilot told us that a few years earlier, his balloon flew over 15 miles north and landed right next to the US Air Force Academy grounds. That's a big difference, and it's all due to the wind!
A hot air balloon will land where it chooses to land. There's not much a pilot can do to control this either. Fortunately for us, we had a smooth landing—our balloon landed on a bush in someone's front yard. A little awkward, but very gentle. Fortunately, the homeowners were very accommodating and excited to have us. They even made us coffee! Most others aren't so lucky—when the wind blows a little harder, you have to brace for impact and might hit the ground several times. Some people even get bounced out of the basket. I'm glad that didn't happen to us!
Hot air ballooning is a VERY old technology, and hasn't changed much. Even though we now use compressed gas in the 21st century, the basic idea of using hot air to lift people in balloons off the ground is over 220 years old! Believe it or not, that makes it even older than the airplane, the steamboat and the modern bicycle (!).
There's also a sort inexplicable romance and mystique to ballooning as well. When we were flying over the highways and tall trees, I thought back to the story from the 1970s where the Strelzyks and Wetzels made the news all over the world by crossing over the Berlin Wall from East to West Germany in a hot air balloon to escape the communist rule. I thought about how their balloon ride was probably a terrifying experience, knowing that if they failed and were caught, or landed too soon, they would probably be executed. …yet here I was, riding in a balloon for fun, having a great time and celebrating my anniversary with my wife. For us, it was a fun hobby. For them, it was their last chance to freedom. Quite a contrast.
After we landed, we packed up the envelope into a bag—(Isn't that amazing? We packed a nylon balloon that holds 90,000 cubic feet of hot air into a little bag and loaded it up into a trailer!)—we were "initiated" as first-time balloonists. The balloon crew then poured dirt and water on our heads (nobody told me about this part!) as part of the supposedly ancient initiation ritual and we celebrated with a champagne toast. Here's the balloonist's prayer:
"The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warm hands. You have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in your laughter and set you gently back into the loving arms of mother earth."
We came back later that night to watch the Balloon-Glo, where they balloons were all lit up in the darkness and brought our kids and even they had fun. It was a great event, and I think if you're in the area next year, you should really try to make it. Thanks to everyone who made it possible!
(Click on the images above to view a Photo Gallery)