May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with his warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well
That God joins you in laughter
And sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
—The Balloonist Prayer
Despite the discouragement offered by too many mediocre experiences on commercial airliners, part of my psyche still regards flight as a very special form of magic. So when the crew of the balloon Enchanted selected Himself and Yours Truly to be the gondola passengers for the flight of Wednesday, October 6 (my birthday), it was no small gift—not for us and not for the crew.
The gondola of a standard balloon is relatively small, typically holding only three or four people, one of whom is always the pilot. Most sport balloons average only one flight per day—and then only when weather and winds permit. Even given the 10-day span of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, only a handful of passengers will actually be flown by any one balloon. Selecting us to fly quite literally meant that two other members of the crew—that is, members with frankly a stronger claim to the opportunity—would likely not have the chance.
A typical balloon flight begins with the pilot’s briefing to passengers. Our pilot, after many years of experience, has reduced his briefing to three key points:
(1) No matter what happens, stay in the gondola until the pilot instructs you that it’s safe to climb out.
(2) Always be aware of your surroundings. Keep both eyes open for anything that might interfere with either the balloon’s flight or its landing—including power lines, radio towers, other nearby balloons—and tell the pilot, even if you think he’s already aware of what you see.
(3) Follow any and all instructions from the pilot without question or delay.
As a passenger, it’s comforting to remember that balloon pilots are accomplished aviators with training and skills that meet rigorous standards established by the Federal Aviation Administration. A pilot must be able to handle emergencies as well as routine activities, and his expertise constitutes a passenger’s most effective guarantee of safety.
With all these practical matters in mind, the magic begins. Taking flight in a balloon is literally to float on the arms of the wind. Because the craft is carried with and by the wind, the only discernable sense of motion is provided by your balloon’s movement over the landscape below and by other balloons adrift nearby. Being suspended in air inside a wicker gondola feels a bit like standing still at the center of a 360-degree panoramic projection. The higher the balloon ascends, the more profound the illusion.
The world beneath the gondola is a patchwork of patchworks. First comes the launch, with its focus on friends and crew waving and shouting encouragement. Very quickly, the launch field diminishes into a green rectangle, colorfully dotted with other balloons preparing to fly. As the balloon moves higher and is caught by the wind, the field recedes into a far larger pattern. In Albuquerque at Fiesta time, that pattern includes the sharp, straight lines of streets and highways against the desert landscape, the tiled and graveled roofs of residential neighborhoods, the pavements and flattened commercial rooftops of shopping areas, and the green-brown shards of parks scattered throughout the city.
The view finally enlarges to include spectacular views of the Rio Grande Valley, with the river occasionally sparkling through the early-autumn tints of cottonwood groves along its banks, the rugged outlines of the Sandia and Manzano mountain ranges to the east, and the softer, warmer contours of the West Mesa, with its long-dormant volcanoes.
And during a Mass Ascension event at Fiesta, the view roundabout also includes hundreds of other balloons of all colors and many shapes—all drifting with a current of air or darting under their pilots’ direction to higher or lower currents. During our flight, the special shapes who were our neighbors included Airabelle, the flying cow; Little Angel and Little Devil, two brand new balloons based in Brazil; Azul, the blue monster; Smokey the Bear, who made the national news on the last day of Fiesta by snagging a communications tower; and an oversized American flag, sighted off in the distance and viewed against the backdrop of the Sandias.
A good pilot wants a smooth voyage and generally provides passengers with information about what to expect throughout the flight. Our pilot showed us how the propane burner is used to increase elevation, shared bits and pieces of his technical knowledge, discussed the rules of courteous flying to encourage safety awareness, and told us well in advance where and when he planned to land.
Himself and I have ascended and landed twice in a balloon, and the two experiences have been very different—that difference being best defined by the landing. Our first flight in 2002, with the same pilot, ended in a soft hop of the gondola against the desert floor, with lots of helping hands to assist us in climbing back out to Mother Earth.
The second time around, our pilot was given a last-minute signal from an official spotter at his chosen landing site, effectively being asked to re-ascend. The pilot tried to comply, but he was simply too committed to the planned landing and would have been unable to clear a nearby fence. In a split second, he chose to land rather than risk the possibility of being snagged on barbed wire while trying to clear the fence. The slight delay meant that our gondola drug across the ground for about 50 yards before coming to rest against the fence.
We had a rough and exciting few seconds, but our pilot’s skill meant that neither the passengers nor the balloon were damaged. I ended up tumbled in the floor of the basket, under Himself’s long legs. Though the gondola hit the fence, the pilot retained enough control to ensure that the envelope itself cleared the barbed wire. As with our first, less eventful landing, we were again quickly surrounded by the chase crew, who walked the balloon back from the fence and helped us out of the basket. We were a tad rattled, but safe.
As an encore to this experience, we all joined forces to pack the balloon, load it onto the chase vehicle, and head back to the launch field for the post-ascension party. We had a joyous flight to celebrate—and more reason than usual to be grateful for a safe landing. It was indeed a very special birthday.