Riding High: Once the Hard Work is Done on the Ground, Nothing is More Exhilarating than a Trip in a Hot-Air Balloon
A hot-air balloon floating gently through blue skies. What could be more peaceful?
Not much. But getting the balloon in the air – now that’s another story, which happened on a sunny, breezy day last month.
Tribune photographer Erik Daily and I were scheduled to take a ride in a hot-air balloon owned by Minnesota pilot Allan McCormick, a Minnesota-based pilot and one of the three commercial hot-air balloon operators in the tri-state area.
More than almost any other recreational business, ballooning relies on the weather. Throughout the day of our scheduled ride, I’m in constant contact with McCormick’s assistant, Vicky Hunziker, just to see if the weather is good enough to launch and, if it is, when and where we’ll do it.
Luck is with us. The sun is shining, there are just a few clouds in the sky. It’s not too windy. We meet at a field in La Crescent, Minnesota about 4 p.m.
Surprisingly, all the equipment for a hot-air balloon fits in a small trailer towed behind McCormick’s truck.
There’s the gondola, a sturdy basket about 3 by 4 feet and made of wood, wicker and aircraft aluminum. There’s the balloon part – the envelope, it’s called – made of ripstop nylon, a fabric used in military parachutes that resists running if torn. Before inflation, it fits in a bag about three feet around.
There are some heavy ropes, a big fan, a gas generator and a couple propane burners – and that’s about it.
The only thing left to do is to haul all that stuff out and get it ready to fly. Well, not quite.
McCormick and Hunziker are still pondering the weather. If we lift off here, where will the winds take us? Is there a better place to launch from today? Two other options are discussed. After much debate, they decide the best place is Riverside Park across the Mississippi River in Wisconsin. We get back in our vehicles and head toward La Crosse.
Once there, we get everything out on the grass, but now we have a couple other problems. One, the wind. It’s gusting a bit, and we need to wait for it to die down.
Two, we need bodies. People to help us hold the envelope as it is inflated. Luckily, we spot two UW-La Crosse students jogging through the park and press them into service.
A crowd starts to form as McCormick gets out the big fan, revs up the generator and starts blowing air into the envelope. When full, he says, it will be 70 feet high, 55 feet wide and hold 77,500 cubic feet of air. I learn other things as the balloon begins to take shape.
A setup like this costs a little more than $30,000. Balloons are inspected annually by the Federal Aviation Administration, and pilots get a biannual flight review with an FAA pilot. For the kind of ride we’ll be taking – about an hour long – McCormick says he’ll carry about 40 gallons of fuel. It’s the same stuff you use in your gas grill.
When the envelope is about half full, McCormick starts to use the propane burners – each producing 13 million BTUs – to heat up the air inside. This is the principle on which hot-air ballooning works: Heated air is lighter and less dense than the surrounding air, allowing the balloon to fly. Basic physics.
What it means to me right now, though, is that suddenly the gondola is making a move the depart the Earth and, man, is that sucker heavy! It takes all the strength of myself and two others to keep it on the ground as McCormick works the burners. The balloon is looking gigantic now and the adrenaline is rushing through my body as we set the gondola upright to start the launch and I realize I’m about to take to the skies on my first hot-air balloon ride.
Well, not quite. There’s a problem. McCormick calls it a “knot.”
A knot? In a hot-air balloon?
“The air wasn’t sealing at the top of the parachute,” McCormick explains, after we set the gondola back on its side. He works on the parachute awhile, doing things I don’t comprehend. Trust, I realize, is a big part of letting someone take you up in a little basket with no motor hundreds of feet above the ground. McCormick knows what’s he’s doing. I’ll let him do it.
So we go through the whole launching routine again. Time consuming, but our volunteer assistants hang in there. More people have stopped in the park to watch. And then, at about 5:30 p.m., there are three of us crowded into the gondola and we’re aloft.
In the air
It seems to happen that quickly. One minute you’re on the ground, the next you realize that, hey, you’re IN THE AIR.
The moon is a small globe hanging in the east. Highways carve their way through the coulees. Shopping centers, farm fields and housing developments form a patchwork of human industry far below us. Big semi trucks look like less than ants. The bluffs are no longer bluffs, they’re just part of a vast geography, a master plan I know nothing about.
Floating above it all in a 4-foot basket, I feel at once insignificant and exhilarated. The blast of the burners, an occasional far-off plane and the squawks of a cell phone as McCormick keeps in contact with Hunziker in the “chase vehicle” and with the airport for wind conditions, are the only sounds we hear.
An hour later, the ride is over too soon. As we begin our descent, people stream out of their houses, pointing and waving. We wave back. There’s no way to be cynical in a hot-air balloon. There’s also no steering wheel, and I begin to appreciate the skill that goes into flying – and landing – a balloon.
All the pilot can duo is heat up the air to gain altitude; otherwise, he just rides the wind. Impossible, I think, but it’s not, not for a trained, experienced pilot. McCormick takes the balloon down, from a peak of about 7,500 feet, we’re now down to just a few feet above the ground.
As we head toward a small farm field south of La Crosse off Highway MM, McCormick tells us to brace for the landing. Bend your knees, he says, hang on tight to the sides of the basket. Then, impact. A good landing. The gondola tips on its side. The balloon settles to the ground, and loses its shape.
We find that we’re on the land of Robert Heller, who works at the Trade Company in La Crosse. His sons, Robin, 11, and Sean, 10, are the first to greet is, running out from the back of their house to the field we’ve chosen for touchdown.
With Robin’s help, Hunziker locates the house and brings the trailer to us. Everything is packed away again. We head back to La Crosse, with brilliant memories of a once-in-a-lifetime ride in the skies over coulee country.
What could be more peaceful?
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published the La Crosse Tribune on Nov. 3, 1996. One of my lasting memories was when we encountered turbulence halfway through the ride. I will tell you, this feels a LOT different in a hot-air balloon than it does in an airplane. McCormick was in contact with air traffic control at the La Crosse airport and adjusted by taking the balloon up another few thousand feet. Zowie!–Starling
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in a small Wisconsin blue-collar town, Mike Starling ditched the assembly line for a long, sometimes circuitous career working with words, sound and images. His original music is heard on numerous recordings and soundtracks, and his stories and photos have been featured in books, films, mags and other media. Among his other interesting career moves, he has edited a beer magazine, played bass in a reggae band and sold potato chips door-to-door. Inspired by the life-altering events of 2020, he launched a year-long web-based project called I Remember Travel in January 2021.
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