Labor Day Weekend, September 5, 6, and 7marked the 33rd Anniversary of the Colorado Balloon Classic held at Memorial Park. It has achieved the distinction of being "One of the Top 100 Events in the USA" and has held that honor for four years. As this Labor Day Weekend drew near and our city prepared for this annual event, I was inclined to share my own story about how I became a balloonist over three years ago.
The Montgolfier brothers never dreamed as they gave a demonstration that sunny 1873 day in France for Louis IV, that they would be noted forever as the pioneers of lighter-than-air aircraft. They successfully launched a hot air balloon which carried one sheep, one duck and one chicken.
Benjamin Abruzzo, a 20th century balloonist from Albuquerque had a vision also for the future of ballooning when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed in Mersey, France a century later. Since then hot air ballooning has become one of the favorite and exciting sports in America and around the world. Today, the Annual Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta which draws thousands of balloonist, is named for Abruzzo.
Over 200 years after that day that the Montgolfier Brothers flew their initial hot air balloon in France, I was in the midst of 80 some-odd modern day balloons and had a startling revelation to discover I was going to get more personally involved.
It all began one day when I walked into the kitchen and said to my wife Gloria, "What would you say if I wanted to attend a meeting of balloonist to just learn a bit more about it?" She gave me her "Oh boy, here we go again" look. It was the same look I had received when I first mentioned I wanted to climb the famous fourteen-thousand foot Pike's Peak that towered over our fair city.
I was undaunted and continued, "They meet over at a restaurant once a month and I have been invited to attend." Now, I had something to stand on and she said for me to go ahead and see what it was all about.
I read as much as I could at the library during the next couple of weeks so I would at least have some knowledge before the meeting. As planned, I met the entire group at supper and they even had a local TV meteorologist as their guest speaker to explain about weather conditions and when it was safe and unsafe for ballooning.
I absorbed everything like a sponge and signed up as a volunteer to set up the launch area at Memorial Park the following Saturday. The annual Balloon Classic in Colorado Springs was two weeks away and all the preparations are handled a week before so everything will go off like clockwork.
That Saturday I arrived and learned from one of the pilots about laying the envelope out on the ground, cold inflating it with a fan to get the shape, and finally using the propane burner to complete the process. The thought of actually riding in one was the furthest from my mind and I knew it would take weeks and weeks of training before I could even be considered as a "flier". I was just excited to just have the chance to help out as a volunteer.
Fast forward to the first morning of the balloon classic. I had to get out there early; around 5:30 to meet the pilot I had been assigned to, who just happened to have the same last name, and help with unloading the basket, propane tanks, and all the other pieces of equipment required for setting up a hot air balloon. My earlier training the week before paid off well and I felt very comfortable with my duties and helping my pilot get ready for his 7 a.m. launch.
The schedule called for two "waves" of launches to take place each with about 40 some odd balloons per wave. My pilot was part of the first wave and as the time got closer for his launch, I was getting pretty excited putting my weight on the side of the basket along with some of the other crew members. Shortly before we were to release him he asked me to sign a release and get in the basket.
This author's heart almost jumped out of his body. I quickly scribbled my signature signing my life away and releasing him from any liability. The pilot has to wait for the exact moment to lift off and it is important that the basket is held down until he instructs the crew to let go or in ballooning terms, "weight off."
He took my arm and helped lift me into the basket to join another passenger and within the next minute or so the crew took their weight off and we began to gently rise into the thin morning air. The sun was just starting to peek over the eastern horizon. My pilot drifted over Prospect Lake and then he made a few inches "Dip" into the water as people on the shore yelled and applauded his flying ability. Then he forced more propane into the envelope and we rose faster and joined other balloons already in the sky.
I can't even begin to explain the exhilaration of those first few minutes. It was like being in a tall building and looking out over cars that appeared as toys. The only main difference was that the building was "moving" and going higher and higher. The rim of the basket only came up a little above my waist where I stood and everything was open with the whole world of space engulfing our balloon.
Was I scared? Did I give any thought to falling out? Not one second did either of those things occur in my mind? I just enjoyed being up there. I was amazed at how quiet it was as we sailed along high above the trees and houses. I saw some geese that flew by under us and I realized that I was experiencing the same thing that those geese saw as part of their regular day. The other balloons spaced at different altitudes and directions were a fantastic sight. Some of the others closer to us could actually talk to us and wave as we flew past them.
In a very few minutes we were at an altitude of 500 feet and I could see most of downtown Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak to the west. The pilot continued to force propane gas from the burner into the envelope and we glided onward and upward over 900 ft.
The wind took us in a southeast course and as an hour of flight approached, the pilot started looking for a spot to set down and that is one of the most important parts of hot air ballooning.
Number one, it has to be a safe area; two: not on private property, three: away from busy roads and, four: nowhere near a high-power line or telephone lines. Our chase crew was following us on the ground below and the pilot had a handheld radio to stay in contact with them and give them some idea where he thought he would attempt a landing.
Our flight lasted one hour and ten minutes and as we began our descent, we were told to flex our legs and lean back so when the basket touched the ground we would not be thrown forward. I suppose I did have a concern about landing, but we picked a nice clear spot with a grassy area. Our 25 years of "seasoned experience" pilot brought his balloon down like he was using his finger to touch the tops of dinner rolls in the oven to see if they were cooked. It was a super soft landing and I barely felt any jolt at all as he set it down and the chase crew ran out and caught us and grabbed onto the basket to prevent it from taking off again.
I was "hooked" as the saying goes. After we folded the envelope up and put the basket and equipment back in the chase vehicle, we returned to the launch area for a tailgate party. There, I was formally initiated with a Champaign toast as a "first-time flier" and I had my picture taken with the pilot and he signed an official certificate and filled in all the pertinent information about the day of the flight along with my name. Today, it hangs on the wall in my study, along with other significant remembrances of my life.
As a post-script I had the fortunate occasion to fly again during this last classic, but nothing will ever compare with that very first time I ascended into the blue skies over Colorado Springs three years ago.