Alyssa Miller

‘Tailwind’: Up and away

October 4, 2010 by Alyssa Miller, AOPA Online Managing Editor

As balloonists from around the world gather at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico to compete and show off their balloons to hundreds of thousands of spectators, I can’t help but feel a longing to be a part of the magic with mass ascensions and night glows.

I recently experienced my first balloon flight with AOPA Pilot Information Center Aviation Technical Specialist Patrick Smith and his instructor, Ron Broderick of West Friendship, Md. Patrick, who recently invested in a hot air balloon (Tailwind), initially became interested in ballooning when he and other AOPA staff assisted Broderick, who was incorrectly hit with a Maryland “amusement tax.”

Burner test

Photos by Bob Knill

The first major adjustment in my introduction to ballooning was the new definition of “windy.” Patrick would repeatedly check the winds and keep his trusty crew—other AOPA colleagues who didn’t mind a pre-dawn wakeup—informed. In ballooning, 7 knots is windy (quite a shock to someone who thinks 20 knots is windy, and I’m sure that is mild to a lot of other pilots). However, 7 knots is the maximum wind limit, which makes sense when you consider how even a light wind of a couple knots can move a hot air balloon.

“Preflight” was the next big eye-opener. As a handful of us sat the basket out of the trailer and stretched out the envelope, Patrick followed a checklist and then began testing the burners. All it took was a sudden burst of heat coupled with a loud gushing sound to kick in my fight or flight responses. Once I was back from the basket about 20 feet, I looked up to see the burner shooting a wall of fire 10 feet in the air. The adrenaline rush compares to nothing of the preflight actions on a piston single!

As we began cold filling the envelope with a fan, I immediately felt like a kid at the circus, especially when I got to walk around inside with the colorful balloon expanding around me.

But none of these experiences compared to the moment we lifted off from the ground, and our support crew gave us little nudge. Floating silently over the terrain I’d flown over hundreds of times in single-engine aircraft revealed an entirely new perspective. I could see the details of the leaves in the bean crops, reach out and grab a walnut from the top of a tree, watch sheep run across a hill, and, best of all, talk to people on the ground as they waved and shouted while we passed by slowly overhead.

Interestingly, ballooning requires a great deal of pre-planning. Not just noting the winds and selecting the appropriate launch site, but even while airborne. Balloons have an eight-second lag in response time, so bursts of gas from the burners need to be timed properly to fly over an obstacle or plan a smooth touchdown.

Since that first flight, I’ve helped crew for another one of Patrick’s balloon lessons. He and his instructor landed in an elementary school yard, giving students and teachers the opportunity to talk to the balloon crew and watch the envelope being deflated.

Based on my limited experience with ballooning, the magic of floating beneath a giant balloon seems to bring out the best of all involved, from the pilots to the ground crew to the spectators, land owners, and neighbors on the ground. Those who might complain about aircraft flying overhead say nothing as a hot air balloon floats by–even with bursts of gas from the burners–or lands on their property. And I realized, what a great way to introduce the public to general aviation.

Whether we fly fixed-wing aircraft, a helicopter, glider, jet, or hot air balloon, we all experience something magical—the gift of flight. And it’s a gift we need to share with others. The magic is too awesome to contain.

2 Responses to “‘Tailwind’: Up and away”

  1. Patrick Says:

    What a great blog article, and a BEAUTIFUL balloon if I do say so myself! Thanks for experiencing it with us!

  2. Jim Kunze Says:

    Alyssa,

    Welcome to the magic world of ballooning. I hope Patrick gave you your champagne toast and regaled you with the first (true) tall tale of balloon flight. It seems that most of us collect a huge volume of fun and funny stories.

    Patrick, wait for your private pilots license. In 20 years of flying airplanes, no one ever asked me for a ride. I always yearned to give the joy of flight to someone else, but never had the opportunity. Then I got a balloon rating. The list of people who are begging for a ride is long and every time I cross a name off that list, two are added. Nothing quite compares with the feeling of hearing the excitement in the voice of a new passenger as you drive back the the launch site.

    Again Alyssa, welcome to the exclusive club. May you be infected with the bug. It is a wonderful malady to have.

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