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You’re already familiar with Airspeed’s dogged pursuit of things that tear up the atmosphere and get from point A to point B as fast as possible – With sonic booms if at all possible.
Today we stretch those horizons a little and talk about tearing up the air a little less. In fact, we’re talking about floating along suspended under about 80,000 cubit feet of air that’s a little warmer than the surrounding atmosphere. We’re going up in a hot air balloon.
You’ll recall that we spent a few days in July at the Battle Creek Balloon Championships and Field of Flight Airshow in Battle Creek, Michigan. We went primarily for the noise and excitement of the Thunderbirds and the Snowbirds, but the fact remains that hot-air ballooning is has always been a big part of the show. Dr. Bob Kinsinger of Battle Creek played a key role in bringing the World Hot Air Balloon Championship to Battle Creek and his legacy remains. Dr. Kinsinger lived down the street from where I grew up and I still remember the hot air balloon that he painted on his mailbox.
Tim Reed and I made it a point to be at the field by 5:30 a.m. each day, primarily because we wanted the opportunity to do the dawn patrol and be as close to the airplanes as possible without all the crowds around to disturb the deep thoughts that we came to think. The festival opens that early for the media primarily because the balloon pilots are there getting their briefings for the morning flight. As long as we were there, each morning and each evening we put in our names on the chance that one of the balloon pilots might take one or both of us up. A few launches either didn’t happen or happened without a pilot having a spot for us but, on Sunday evening, they called my name.
A few minutes later, I was in the van with Dave Emmert and his family driving to the nearby town of Climax for my first balloon ride.
A couple of notes here. Most peoples’ paradigm of hot air balloon flight is silently floating over the countryside. That’s most of it, but that quiet is frequently broken by the fury of the propane burner that produces more than 40 million BTUs of heat from 200 PSI of propane tank pressure. Here’s what it sounds like.
As you’ll soon hear, Dave is a soft-spoken guy. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s virtually impossible to engineer the recording levels on a handheld MP3 player to capture Dave’s voice while not slamming the meters ever time Dave lights up the burner. In order to capture the conversations, I edited out most or all of the burns. You may hear some clipped sentences (Dave doesn’t structure his comments around burns but, rather, talks right through them) and you may hear shifting audio levels and the general effect of the audio in the basket will be a lot more serene than it actually was. But the authenticity and pragmatism in Dave’s voice more than makes up for the loss of authenticity caused by editing out the burns.
We went up in Dave’s balloon, Cloud Nine. Cloud Nine is a Firefly 7-15 registered as N1515E. The part of the balloon that most people think of as the balloon itself is called the “envelope.” Cloud None’s envelope is 57 feet across, 47 feet tall, and has a volume of 77,000 cubic feet. The whole rig is 62 feet from the top of the envelope to the bottom of the basket. Its max gross weight is about 1,750 pounds.
Firefly balloons range from 56,000 cubit feet and 1,200 pounds gross weight to 280,000 cubic feet and 3,940 pounds gross weight.
We arrive at the appointed gathering place – A grocery store parking lot in Climax, just south and a little west of the airfield. There’s some convective weather off to the west and the organizers elected to get everybody down to Climax and make the call to launch as close to the scheduled launch time as possible.
We walk a hundred yards or so to the briefing just in time to hear the organizers announce that we were go to launch.
The walk back is the first chance I have to really talk to Dave.
[Audio – Dave 1]
As we return from the briefing, we stop to talk to one of Dave’s acquaintances. Dave’s friend reaches inside the trailer and blows up a little black party balloon from a helium tank. Moments later, while a small knot of balloonists watches, he lets the balloon go.
The little black balloon is what balloonists call a “pieball.” As it rises through the air, they observe it to try to determine the wind direction and speed at various altitudes. Dave’s friend sights the pieball through something he’s holding up to his eye. It could be an inclinometer or a compass or something else.
As we’re standing there, my MP3 recorder draws some attention. [Audio – Dave 2]
At balloon competitions, you basically “fly in” or you “fly out.” “Flying in” is setting up somewhere upwind of the drop zone and trying to bring the balloon in directly over the target. “Flying out” is setting up on the field at what would otherwise be the drop zone and flying out to some other place downwind. This allows the audience at the airfield to see one of the two more dramatic phases of ballooning on each flight: The launch and the approach to the target. We’re obviously flying in on this one. Based on the wind direction and speed, we now have to go find a place to launch from which the available winds will take us over the big white “X” on the airport in front of the crowd. Dave lives nearby and knows the area well. Looking at the map and considering the wind direction, Dave and his friend decide to head for a nearby subdivision to see if they can find a place to launch. Toward the back of the subdivision, we find an empty lot. Balloon crews are not an uncommon sight around Battle Creek, but they still draw interest. The people in the home next door were out in their front yard. Dave asked whether they’d mind if we launched a couple of balloons from the lot. They weren’t the owners of the lot, but they allowed as how they themselves didn’t have a problem with it.
Dave and his friend each set up on the lot and started the gasoline-engine-powered fans that inflate the balloons with ambient air before firing up the burners.
[Audio – Dave 4]
Okay, it’s time to man the basket. Dave has been firing the burner on and off for a few minutes and the balloon has stood up enough to climb into the basket. The basket itself is tied to the bumper of the van with a quick-release knot that Dave could pull to release the balloon. I make sure that my camera is snugly in the case and that the MP3 recorder is at the ready and they wave me over. Here we go.
[Audio – Dave 5]
We cleared the trees on the north side of the lot easily and then floated out over a corn field with railroad tracks running through it. Dave stayed on the burner pretty frequently to get us to around 1,000 feet.
A few impressions here.
There is no apparent wind in the basket of a balloon. You are essentially within the air mass and a part of the air mass. Other than in the case of shear where air masses meet or when you ascend or descend through a shear zone, there's no wind.
Another odd thing is that you can actually see the cross-section of the wind currents by using a very sophisticated and high-tech procedure. You spit. As the spit recedes, you can see it shear this way and that for a good hundred or more feet.
There’s also the way you experience the altitude. Altitude in an airplane is your friend. It’s time and options and, to a great extent, that’s also true in a balloon. But your position in an airplane is such that you don’t really get to look straight down. You’re usually looking at least 20 degrees or so off to the side. Not so in a balloon. You look over the edge of the basket and you’re looking straight down.
I was uncomfortable, but not overly so. I found a place in the corner of the basket where I could hook an arm around the frame and I felt a lot better.
You navigate a balloon by making use of wind direction at different altitudes. While you're confined to a general direction of flight, you can tweak that direction by ascending or descending to where the wind will take you in the right direction.
On the flight with Dave, is became pretty apparent that the wind up at a few thousand feet would take us about 30 degrees to the right of the target. But the wind below us was a little quicker and from right to left. So the drill on this flight would be to remain high and drift until some distance before the target and then descend at such a time and at such a rate so that we swoop down and to the left directly over the target.
Here’s the conversation.
Dave notices how I’m hugging the strut and wants to make sure that I’m comfortable. Then we talk a little bout his ballooning experience and some of the instrumentation in the basket.
Pretty soon, we’re just about over the field and Dave talks about what we’re about to try to do.
Closer and closer. A balloon ahead of us has hooked right into the target and its crew is getting ready to drop its marker.
The task for today is to drop a weighted streamer as close to the center of the big white “X” as possible. According to the Balloon Federation of America’s competition rules, a weighted streamer is supplied by the organizer for each given task. The marker's streamer must be unfurled before release. A marker's total weight is 70 grams (2.5 oz.). The marker's tail width is 10 centimeters (3.9 in.) and its total length of 170 centimeters (66 in.). Some competitions require that you hold the marker by the tail and drop it without imparting any lateral velocity to it. You can throw the markers in this competition, but you can’t throw a marker sideways very far even if you try because it’s too light to go very far.
We’re at least a couple of hundred feet from the target and Dave considers not throwing the marker at all, but he eventually decides to toss it. He’s hot and heavy on the burner as we maneuver and then go to climb out from the target area.
Some of the balloons are oblong and look like rugby balls standing on end.
Looking behind us, there's a parade of balloons. Different types at different altitudes at different positions near the target area.
Dave says that, by going early, we've given up a bit of an advantage in that the other contestants can gage their approached by looking at what happened to us with our approach profile.
Off to our right, one of the rugby-ball-style balloons is landing in a field behind a school. It looks like they’re breaking up a soccer game, but none of the players seem to mind.
Drifting clear of the airfield, we begin to think about places to land. By now, I’m a lot more comfortable in the basket. I still have an elbow hooked around the strut, but I no longer have the death grip. I tell Dave about that.
Another observation. Ballooning is the ultimate in low and slow. You have a lot more opportunity to look at things on the ground and you notice a lot more. Like an enormous outdoor lot with thousands of something line up in it.
As we drift past the developed area around the airport and over the railroad tracks toward the northern suburbs, I ask Dave about his training and experience.
Now well past the airfield, the terrain is a lot more wooded, punctuated only infrequently by small clearings and residential subdivisions.
Observation: You can hear an amazing amount of what’s going on the ground. It makes sense, actually. Sound generated on the ground only has an average of 180 vertical degrees within which to propagate. In other words, a lot more of it goes up than down. You can hear a conversation from 100 feet away. It’s easy to say hello to people on the ground and they can talk to you without even raising their voices. The person in the balloon has to talk a little louder because the sound he or she makes has a full 360 degrees in which to propagate. But it’s still a lot more social between the ground and the air than it is with airplanes.
I actually proved this point by telling a knock-knock joke to a little girl in a subdivision as we glided overhead. Dave was adjusting our altitude and was on the burner enough to make the audio unusable, but the fact remains that two-way communication is possible without a radio.
By now, Dave is actively looking for a place to land. He tells me that he knows of lots of places up ahead. That’s good, because all I can see is trees.
A good landing place is open, flat, away from trees antenna farms, and electrical wires, and close to a road so that the chase vehicle can get to you. Dave has humped Cloud Nine from the landing zone out to a road a few times, but not often. Worst case, he can pull the propane tanks out of the basket and then no individual part would weigh more than one or two people can carry.
Up ahead is a small clearing. The trees are bout 40 feet high all around. There’s a mobile home at the far side and a dog tied up near the mobile home. We’re hooking in more or less directly toward the center of the clearing. Dave is about to get on the burner and pass up this opportunity, but it’s hooking in so nicely that he reconsiders. A guy about 30 years old has just stepped outside of the mobile home. He doesn’t see us right away, but looks up when Dave asks permission to land.
There’s a flap of fabric in the top of the balloon called the “parachute.” You can pull on a line connected to the parachute and release some or all of the hot air in the envelope. It does for balloons what flaps do for airplanes by letting you descend more quickly in a stabilized way. But, unlike flaps, you can really haul on the parachute line and deflate the envelope to take it down and pack it up. Try that with a Being 727.
As we come in over the trees, Dave gets on the parachute line. I look up and see the parachute flap moving and letting a measured amount of air out of the envelope. Our rate of descent increases and we descend into the clearing. Going about two feet per second, we settle onto the grass. Dave warns me to expect a gentle bounce, and then we come to rest.
For whatever reason, I have this initial urge to get out of the basket. But I think better of it. If I get out, two hundred pounds of podcaster and podcaster gear would become suddenly unavailable as ballast and the balloon would likely try to ascend again. So I stay put.
Once we’re down, the occupants of the mobile home come out to meet us. The guy’s wife and their toddler have joined him and they come out to examine this colorful monstrosity that has just occupied the clearing. The kid’s eyes have grown huge. Clearly, this is not something that happens every day.
Dave gets on the phone and tells the chase crew where to find us. It’s about ten minutes before they show up. Dave keeps the envelope heated just enough to keep it standing up until the crew can help him take it down. Dave spies a moth flying around in the lower reaches of the envelope and, in a moment of unexpected whimsy, he kills some time by going after the moth with the burner. The moth evades the flame ably, possibly because of the turbulence of the burner output itself. If he got it, I didn’t see it happen.
The chase crew arrives a few minutes later. Pack-up takes all of 15 minutes. Everyone seems to know his or her job and falls to it immediately and efficiently.
I slide into the van and we head back to the airport. It’s getting dark off to the west and thunderstorms are moving in. We head to the Air National Guard side of the field and everyone but Dave gets out. Dave is cleared onto the base to go refill his propane tanks. We hang out under a tarp with the friendly but heavily armed guardsmen until Dave comes back, picks us up and swings back around to the other side of the airport where I’m parked.
The crowds are arriving for the fireworks show as I pull out and head for the highway. The more mundane demands of my work and family life await my return 140 miles or so to the east. The drive gives me a chance to reflect on the really singular experience I’ve just had. It’s not the same as the coast down off the adrenaline peak of an airplane media ride. It’s much more reflective.
For all the bombast and fire of the jet demonstrations earlier in the day, this experience stood out for its own reasons. Ballooning is perhaps the first means by which men slipped the surly bounds of earth and got a taste of what was to come in aviation. It demands competencies that are unique among the modes of aviation. Perhaps more than any other form of aviation, it is dependent upon weather and other uncontrollable variables. Success in competition demands humility, keen observation, and a sixth sense about the atmosphere.
Dave Emmert is much like his balloon. Even-tempered, steady, and deliberative. Soft-spoken for the most part. Sharing the skies in easy and close proximity with his fellow enthusiasts.
He is an approachable emissary for his sport. Dave frequently takes up media people and others in Cloud Nine. On the flight that morning, Dave had taken up Maj. Steve Horton, the Thunderbirds’ slot pilot who flies the No. 4 jet. Although I have no real way of knowing, I suspect that Dave gave me, as a mere podcaster and flight enthusiast, the same treatment, consideration, and experience that he have a Thunderbird. It was a privilege to fly with him
Many thanks to Dave Emmert and to the Cloud Nine chase crew.
Battle Creek Balloon Festival and Field of Flight Airshow: www.bcballoons.com
Firefly Balloons: www.fireflyballoons.net