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Flying Without Wings
Last Updated: 3/7/2013
By John D. Ivanko
Waiting for the go-ahead in the flight briefing room at the Annual Monroe Balloon Rally, I tried to be patient. I've always liked flying in the enclosed comfort of a jet, but hopping into a 6-foot-by-4-foot wicker basket to sail with the wind over the rolling Green County countryside – that’s a new adventure with a hint of danger for me. Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes; my fear is of heights.
Then came the weather report: A light 2-knots-per-hour breeze out of the northwest. Clear skies. All flights cleared to launch. Since even modest gusts of wind or distant storms can ground a balloon flight, hot air ballooning is one of the most weather-dependent of all forms of aviation. So everyone was exuberant, including myself, jolted fully awake (having started the day at 4:30 a.m.) by the reality that I'd soon be hundreds of feet in the air—without a seat belt.
My convivial pilot, Keith Wohlfert, smiled, nodding in the direction of the Green County Fairgrounds, our launch site. His crew had already stretched the nylon balloon envelope across the dew-soaked grass. One crew member pointed a large fan to blow air into the envelope to start inflating the balloon. Keith rigged the double burners on a metal harness. In less than 10 minutes, our aircraft—appropriately nicknamed “Snow Cone” for its multicolored top and white bottom—was ready for launch.
Stepping in, I wedged myself into one corner and grabbed the cage that supports the two burners. I focused my adrenaline rush onto the firing burners just inches overhead, blasting hot air into the balloon. Fuel lines from the burner drew down to the 10-gallon LP tanks in each corner of the basket, one next to me. These supplied the burners with fuel to keep the burners going, air hot, and us afloat.
I had nothing to fear, I kept reminding myself. Wohlfert is a Federal Aviation Administration- certified pilot who’s logged in more than 1,000 hours in the air and completed flight school and other training. He’s been a regular at the Monroe Balloon Rally and flies at events in New Mexico, Michigan, and Iowa. “You planning to jump out of the basket?” he asked me with a smile, as if it was a routine part of his preflight check. Maybe it was.
Before I could nod in reply, he yelled, “Ready, go!” His crew released the tether lines, sending us swooshing into the azure sky. The fairgrounds “airport” fell away, revealing a 360-degree panorama of the rolling countryside, contour lines of corn, alfalfa, and soybeans fields dotted by tidy farmsteads and connected by a gridwork of roads. The occasional firing of the burners—like the static from a CD radio cutting out—was the only sounds we heard.
Following a route across the sky, using the wind as our directional energy source, Wohlfert piloted Snow Cone more than 2,000 feet in the air before leveling off. Other iridescent balloons stretched in front of and behind us. To my surprise, the calming vistas and sense of peace eclipsed my vertigo. Since we were floating with the breeze, I never felt it.
As the air in the balloon cooled, we began our slow descent. With expert showmanship, Wohlfert glided us down to a few feet above an emerging cornfield. Then he hit the burners just enough to take us over a row of fenceline treetops, scaring a few deer that bolted into a nearby woodlot. Cows bellowed, protesting the unfamiliar burner blasts and spectacle of towering monstrosities.
Less an hour later, Wohlfert radioed his chase team to see where they’d negotiated a safe landing spot on some yet-to-be-determined plot of land. Our makeshift airport turned out to be a golf course. We made our final approach, waving to several carloads of people who snapped photographs and watched—to see if we hit the green.
With a thump, we touched down on the fairway, the envelope falling to the lawn outstretched--ready for final deflation and packing. Out came the champagne bottle for a toast to our flight, our pilot, and the weather, a tradition since the 1780s, when early balloon pilots needed something to dole out for the disruption they’d caused.
Do cows like champagne? I wondered. I’d happily offer it, for a chance to fly again.