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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Up, Up, and Away!

Sunday, Dec. 20th was my first hot air balloon ride with Austin Aeronauts. While it might not be as thrilling as a skydive, my first flight with Austin Aeronauts was fun and exciting in its own way.  The morning started early, as in 6:30 am early.  The reason they start early is because winds tend to pick up over the course of the day, and it really isn't a good idea to take first time passengers up if the winds are more than nine miles per hour. 
The course of the hot air balloon is entirely up to Mother Nature.  At different altitudes, the wind blows in different directions.  To tell where the wind was going, a helium balloon was released into the air prior to take off. The pilot, David Smuck, and retriever, Chuck, watched the direction of the helium balloon as it floated through different altitudes.  A hot air balloon team consists of at least two people, a pilot and a retriever (not Golden, German Short hair, or Labrador).  The pilot navigates the balloon by releasing air or turning on the flame for more more hot air.  The pilot is responsible for finding a good landing spot for the balloon as well as landing it safely.  The retriever drives to the landing location to pick up the balloon and passengers.  Sometimes it isn't easy as good landing spots aren't always easily accessible to a truck towing a trailer.  Good landing spots aren't always easy to find as there are many parameters.  Dry, flat land sans large rocks or livestock is ideal.  Private property is sometimes the only option for landing, and if so, they tend to look for property that isn't gated or locked. 

Sunday morning was freezing.  Check out the frost. 

The balloon is first filled with cold air with a high powered fan.  Other passengers are helping by holding the balloon.  The volume of this particular hot air balloon filled is about the size of 60 school buses at 100 ft long and 100 ft in diameter.  This aircraft can hold up to 1500 lbs.  

David, the pilot at the top of the balloon during inflation.

A look into the inflating balloon through the envelope on top. 

The flame throwers.  These make shooting flames into the balloon.

We're just now starting to float.

The Dell Diamond.

The other balloon.  You can see the shadow of the balloon I was riding in on the other balloon.

We flew over someone's very dirty pool.  Here's a photo of the reflection of our balloon in the pool.

Reflection of the balloon in David's sunglasses.

Cattle grazing.

Shadow of the balloon.

Spooked cows.  When the cow on the left first saw us, it literally freaked out.  It startled violently, stared at us with wide eyes, and froze.  Poor cow.  I thought it was going to have a heart attack.  When humans first see the balloon, they usually run inside to fetch a camera.  Dogs occasionally bark at us. 

After flying for about 90 minutes (~26 miles), we found a good spot to land.  The landing spot was only 3 miles away from the take off locations, and it was a grassy flat area on a public road near some homes.  David begins our descent by turning off the burners and pulling on the red cord to let some hot air out. 

There are no photos of landing because it can be kind of bumpy.  The basket can tilt, and you can get thrown out.  Lucky me got to be the pilot once we landed.  David, the pilot, hopped out of the basket while I got to pull the cord to let out the rest of the hot air. It wasn't an easy task.  Talk about some rope burn.

Collecting the deflated balloon. 

David and the other passengers squishing the air out of the ballon. 

The balloon is partially rolled up, then rolled into a bag. 

David, another passenger, and I sitting on the balloon to get the air out.

Chuck, our retriever, laying on the balloon to get the rest of the air out. 

Post-flight, everyone gets a glass of champagne as part of tradition. The legend is that the very first hot air balloon was mistaken for a fire-y beast of sorts, and attacked by people on the ground.  People just weren't used to seeing large objects in the sky with fire in 1783.  The champagne tradition was developed as a way for the hot air balloon passengers to signal to people on the ground that they were indeed humans; after all, who doesn't recognize a champagne bottle.

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