Saturday, March 30, 2013

Up, up, and away in our beautiful balloon...

Balloonist Prayer

May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its 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.

At 4:45 the alarm rings…and mom and I are off to a sunrise flight followed by a traditional champagne toast then on to a hot brunch! Considering my mom is almost 79, I had concerns about the safety and ease of such a thrilling adventure.  Those concerns were quickly mitigated with some research (see end of article and videos) and opinions from my readers and friends. We were definitely ready for the ultimate sky cruise. 

 Our adventure started with a record breaking cold for Spring here in Florida.  There was actual frost nipping at our toes, but wearing closed toed shoes, warm socks, and layers as suggested was a blessing. Getting up early is a must as the drive to the launching site has to be determined by the pilot and his crew that morning and may be one of several choice open fields.  This Thursday turned out to be exceptional…winds 5-8 mph, ground fog lapping the edges of the ponds and low lying areas, and a crisp clear sky.

After boarding the van with its trailer carrying all the equipment, we headed north but south of Ocala to a small field near a new homes construction site. The whole process of unloading and setting up the balloon (envelope) was quite interesting, and we were amazed at the unfolding of the whole event.

 First is removing the gondola, a real wicker basket; ours had four compartments for two and the pilot’s middle section where the fuel tanks and gages are inserted. The burners are set atop the basket which is then laid on its side in preparation for the envelope to be pulled out to begin the process of filling the balloon with cold air (from commercial size fans and generator) then hot air so it can rise ever so gently over the basket tethered by ropes. It’s an amazing process directed by the pilot, crew, and willing participants.

With heightened anticipation, we assisted my mom into the stepping holes and over the padded edges into the gondola. She did that with relative ease considering her two titanium knees. The staff was very considerate, assisting all of us up and over into the wicker chariot, and then, with the most quiet and graceful departure, we were on our way. Understanding that we were at the mercy of the winds, our experienced pilot, Dave, answered all our questions about flying, equipment, and training.  Any concerns melted away as we glided over Tampa’s homes, scenic pine scrubs, and ponds, as we took photos of all things worthy. We saw deer, curious cattle, and flocks of birds. It was so serene. Everyone, eight passengers and our pilot, cruised over tree tops with such ease…we stayed at around 80 feet this day so as to slow the speed of our journey. It was worth every dollar!

 As Dave radioed his choice of the landing spot, Mom and I noticed the high wires, but Dave was quick to inform us this is the norm to have to pilot over them. He did so easily. The descent was much more gentle than we anticipated considering we were briefed for the roughest possibility. We learned to hang on to the handles inside the basket, lean with our backs against the edge facing away from the direction we would come into for the landing, and maintain bent knees to absorb any shock.  Of course, we came in so softly hovering just  inches above the ground to an exemplary touchdown. Dave made us all laugh when he started screaming, “Oh no, watch out, ahhhh!!!” just before we “hit” ground!

 The experience doesn't end for the ground crew who met us at the final destination, nor Dave because packing it all up is quite an ordeal! The process looks choreographed as each member pulls on the balloon as it falls deflated to the ground looking much like it did at the beginning of our journey. Dave brings out a bent pipe, and he and a crew member tug it along the balloon’s length to get all the residual air out before packing it into the bag again. The gondola is dismantled, and everything is placed back into the trailer. We are given a short history of ballooning, shared a prayer, and participated in the traditional champagne toast. The morning had warmed as did our friendships for all those who joined us on this Big Red Balloon 
sightseeing cruise in the sky.

Cold air fill.
Our adventure was an absolute pleasure, and now I will begin to work on the other half of TravelingTilleys for a hot air balloon ride over the scenic autumn foliage up north someday soon. As dreams go, this marked one off my list, and I got to do it with my mom!
Hot air fill.Up, up, and away.
Running deer.
Skittish cattle.
Our pilot, Dave, and a little history.

Big Red Balloon Sightseeing Adventures: Click link.
“Buying a hot air balloon and becoming a hot air balloon pilot will put you in rare company. There are only about 4,000 hot air balloonists in the United States. Hot air ballooning is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and all pilots and balloons must meet their regulatory standards. New balloons are expensive (think luxury car prices) and must pass annual and 100-hour inspections. In addition to the balloon, pilots must invest in additional equipment, ground crews, and insurance,” according to
Some research points:
“Training for a private license requires at least ten hours of flight instruction combined with additional hours of ground training and a written test. A commercial license requires more experience- pilots must have at least thirty-five hours of flight time with additional ground experience and must pass a much more stringent written test.”
“The costs for training for a private license can range from $1,200 to $2,750, a commercial license can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $3500.”
“Buying a “flight system” consists of the balloon (also called the envelope), the basket or gondola, fuel, burners and an inflation fan that is used to help inflate the envelope. Costs of these items can vary and some of them are included when you purchase a balloon. Others you will have to buy on your own, such as fuel for each flight (from $15 to $30 and up per hour) and the inflation fan ($900 and up). Additionally, comprehensive insurance will cost anywhere from $500 to $1,200 annually.”
“During the flight, members of the chaser crew keep in contact with the pilot via two-way radio and ultimately meet them at the flight’s landing spot, where they help pack up the balloon and bring the pilot and any passengers back to where they started from.”
“A new balloon will last anywhere from 300-500 hours before it needs to be replaced or significantly repaired.”
“Smaller or sport-sized balloons are for solo flights (pilot only) can start at $20,000. Larger balloons for commercial flights, where pilots are hired to take people on rides, can start at $45,000 and can go much higher.”
“Balloons must undergo annual and 100-hour inspections, fees vary for this inspection, a good ballpark cost for inspections is $350.
For more of the complete article see:

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Up, up, and away!

Been dreaming of doing this!
I'll be boarding tomorrow morning....more when I have video/pictures.