August 31st, 2019
It’s Labor Day in Colorado Springs. That means if you look up into the air at any point during the weekend, you may spot Colorful Hot Air Balloons speckling the otherwise light blue sky.
It’s dawn, the sun is slowly creeping over the horizon and the balloon I’m going up on is called ‘First Light.’ Right now it is stretched out on the ground getting ready to be inflated. A gigantic fan is positioned by the basket. A tough little lady, the co-pilot named Neda is standing on the basket. She yells out, “Okay, roll me over!” The crew and volunteers jump to at her command. They start the fan, and the balloon begins to rise into a billowing mass of fabric that are the same colors as the sunrise. Feeling the material I am reminded of the parachutes we used to play with in elementary school gym class. I am not reassured by the thought that this fabric filled with air and flame is going to hold us up.
Neal Smith, our pilot, is also an engineer and an Air Force Man, so I am at least re-assured by his understanding of physics, knowing it will keep us afloat.
“This is the oldest form of flying,” he explains. It was created by the French in 1783, and explains how the balloon is called an envelope. (they owned a paper company) A paper company with dreams of flight. There is a ceremony at the end of each passengers first flight that reeks of French. But I’ll get to that later, right now I am climbing into a basket, getting ready to float over the Earth.
As we rise, its slow and there is a silence from the ground as the people watch in awe, our gradual ascent. They begin to wave, and I wave back, feeling the dreamy quality of the Wizard of Oz has become my life.
We rise higher and the sunrise lightens against the dark mountains. THe world has become colors and lines. I briefly glance down over the basket. It feels absurd to be standing this high up. Gliding the breeze without wings. I can’t help but laugh.
“See that dog down there?” Pilot Neal yells. We look down and spot a dog freaking out, barking from a quilt patch square of a backyard.
“Animals freak because they can hear the sonic pressure.”
I ask him the most beautiful view he has ever seen in a hot air balloon. He tells me a horse pasture in New Mexico as far as the eye could see, and a herd of elk/antelope running across it.
Obviously, reminiscing about his past flights, Neal adds, “You do see the occasional naked person, but never the ones you want to see.”
For a little while, after we all chuckle, there is just the noise of the liquified propane spewing into the balloon to keep us afloat.
Everything else around us is stillness and silence. A little while later, Neal begins searching for a place to land. We heard the flight conditions before we took off so all three of us are on the lookout for a landing patch.
Neal tells us the most dangerous things to look out for are power lines and fences. We scour the Earth and slowly descend. Over the highway, the cars are slowing down to wave and watch. What else do you do but wave back as you float away smiling? But Neal is slightly concerned with the thermal air, so he is still solely focused on the landing.
“Take off is optional, landing is mandatory,” he tells us.
We float over a small construction site clear across town, then a hilly field. We are skimming the Earth and I realize then how fast we are truly going because if we hit the grass this fast, we are gonna crash.
Confirming my theory, Neal yells, “Alright now, hold on!”
“Hold on where?” I ask slightly panicked this is actually happening.
“Those ropes there,” he points to blue loops tied to the basket.
I cling on gratefully, bracing myself with a slight bend in my knees.
We hit the ground and the basket tips forward, but we still have too much speed so the balloon continues to lift and drag us down the slope. The Captain of our floating aircraft expertly lays off the propane enough to slow us down. As we bounce along we knock into small bushes and trees until we come to a house where a bunch of people are taking pictures of us as we approach.
“Can we land here?” Neal yells to the balcony.
“Yes,” the woman says.
It’s all happening fast now. Neal directs Moe to jump out of the basket and guide the balloon as it falls. Moe runs, grabs the rope; the air is leaving the balloon making it wave and slowly fade. Now Neal instructs me to, “Roll her over,” we are gonna dump out of the basket. Then he directs me to secure the ropes to help the balloon lose air more quickly.
I run for the ropes and Neal runs over to help Moe. Once the balloon is flat on the ground, the homeowners approach.
“You’all lost?” the lady asked.
“We got blown off course because of the powerful winds,” Neal explains.
He picks up his phone and calls Neda to bring the crew. He fills the wait time enjoyably chatting with the homeowners. There is an old dog and a man smoking a joint watching us; the spectacle.
Can you imagine if you were watching a hot air balloon up in the sky and then it crashes into your yard? The hilarity.
“I’m so glad I was here for this,” the lady homeowner says, “I’m off work today.”
Then a truck appears over the hill and up the driveway of the house. There are flags waving in the wind and then the entire crew emerges. Co-pilot Neda walks briskly over to Neal, directing the volunteers as she goes.
She jokes, “A little off course.”
Neal agrees, “I’m glad we landed when we did.”
Briskly, everyone snaps to getting all the equipment put away. It is as efficient and coordinated as a military platoon. They mark time by counting to three, and the strength of everyone working together so harmoniously is proof that this is not a passive ride but an actual sport.
I walk over to assist Neda. I ask her some questions as we clear out the truck so it’s ready to transport the balloon equipment.
“I do it for the community aspect, not the competition,” she tells me. She has been flying forever, it was something she always wanted to do.
“When I was a kid, I tried to fly off the roof with an open umbrella,” she says.
“She’ll forget more than I’ll ever learn,” Neal says about Neda’s extensive experience. She has all the youth of that little girl who flew with an umbrella at now nearly eighty years of age. She complains that it takes longer, but to my eyes, she moves better than some lazy teenagers i’ve seen.
Finally, we get everything put away and tied down in the back of the truck.
And now comes the tradition. Neal sits Moe and I down on our knees before an altar of mimosa’s and tells us the origin story of balloon flight.
Neal is a character who loves to tell stories, so he tells us the way the French hit trial and error to arrive at this simplistic flying machine.
“And so now that you have flown without wings, you must drink without hands.”
I am horrified, I cannot chug alcohol, shots are not my thing. But it really isn’t optional; and since I did just defy the rules of man and fly without wings...down the hatch!
To make it more challenging, water is splashed on us, making me sputter and nearly drop the cup being held between my teeth. Once we are both finished we rise at the end of the ceremony and give hugs, handshakes and words of thanks to all. It really is an event and every player partakes differently in order to make the whole operation work. There are chips and salsa and pleasant conversation with happy souls all sharing their experiences flying.
I’m still in shock. I reflect on this entire community of people who do this leisurely or competitively. I think about watching from the ground these balloons in the sky. To be in the basket in the sky is another thing entirely. It feels like time has stopped and you can exist in one present moment, floating over the world. You are relaxed and exhilarated at once. After many more endearments of gratitude for a perfectly thrilling Friday morning, we all pile into the cars and drive back to our starting point at Memorial Park.
The entire reason I was able to have this experience to begin with is to create more awareness about the Labor Day Liftoff Event, as well as Hot Air Ballooning in general. This community of soaring people we are excited to see from a distance, touchdown and tell their stores to create an experience of beauty for all. Go see them, go fly. Just seeing the splendor is enough to take your breath away.
LABOR DAY LIFTOFF
August 31st-Sept 2nd
over & out. ANgr