It’s six am on a Saturday morning. The sun has yet to break the horizon, but a caravan of trucks and trailers are already waiting as sleepy adventurers begin to arrive at the Rejavanation Café in Candler. This is where our balloon adventure is set to begin.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you wonder why ballooning takes place in the wee hours of the morning, it’s all about the wind. “Balloons like it cool,” pilot Tom Mackie, owner of Asheville Balloon Company, says, “as the sun rises it gets hotter, but it also picks up the wind.”
There are four balloons scheduled to fly today. Rick Bowers, owner of Asheville Hot Air Balloons, will be piloting one of them. Bowers had his first flight at age five when his dad took him up in a Cessna trainer. He’s been piloting airplanes since the 80s.
The sport of ballooning has come a long way since the first hot air balloon flight took place September 19, 1783. The passengers (a sheep, a duck, and a rooster) were airborne for a mesmerizing ten minutes. The first manned flight quickly followed on November 21, 1783. Two French brothers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, constructed a balloon that was launched from the center of Paris and flew for 20 minutes. In the 1950s Ed Yost was developing the modern ballooning equipment we use today, which made the sport of hot air ballooning affordable and practical for the first time. His first successful flight was on October 22, 1960.
Outside Rejavanation Café, waiting passengers sip coffee, while the pilots and crew check Doppler radar, weather reports, and any information they can find to tip them off as to what we will encounter if we fly today. But still, it’s not enough. “After all that, the real test is to send up a pibal,” Mackie says.
A pibal (short for pilot balloon) is a small helium-filled black balloon. The crewmembers release it into the air as all eyes track its course. Soon the pibal is just a black dot in the sky. Somehow the pilots and crew manage to keep it in sight, noting speed and direction as it changes altitude. Finally satisfied, crewmembers climb into vans full of equipment. About two-dozen passengers follow suit, piling into vans and buses, which will transport us to the secret launching point. (Hint: There’s a big paper mill there.)
Traveling in our van are an assortment of crew and passengers, including pilot James Eagle, whom everyone calls ‘Chief’. Chief is taking his young son, Paul, and his best friend up today. A young woman and her mother-in-law are celebrating a birthday. “We do this every day, but for some people it’s a once in a lifetime experience,” Bowers says. “Ballooning is on a lot of people’s bucket lists.”
There’s nervous chatter as we make our way down the highway pulling a trailer full of equipment. Suddenly a huge explosion erupts behind us. “We just blew a tire,” Chief says.
We stop to assess damages. The fender is lying in the road. As the crew debates what to do (keep going slowly or try to replace the tire now?) another far worse emergency arises. “They forgot to put marshmallows in my hot chocolate!” Paul says. But ballooners are not derailed by such disasters. They have learned to trouble shoot all kinds of unexpected obstacles and challenges, from a flat tire to missing marshmallows, it’s all par for the course. As we continue at half speed, Chief and the driver recount a string of misadventures from past ballooning trips.
When we get to the launching site, which is a field near Canton High School, the balloons are already laid out and crewmembers are inflating them with huge electric fans.
Passengers group around Bowers for the pre-flight orientation. With his wry humor he prepares us for anything that might happen; from how to handle a hard landing (put your feet and knees together and keep your knees bent), to the possibility of skimming treetops in order to slow the balloon down (“If I do that, yes, I can see the trees,” Bower quips), to condensation from the fuel tank dripping down and staining your shirt.
One of Bower’s most entertaining stories is of a woman who wanted to conquer her fear of flying. She cried the entire flight. But that wasn’t the worst part. The second they landed she jumped out of the basket. So without the extra ballast, the balloon, still carrying Bowers and the woman’s boyfriend, shot up thousands of feet straight into the air. “It took me another 20 minutes to land,” Bowers recalls. This story was strangely reassuring: At least we knew to avoid that major faux pas.
The passengers were divided up between the four balloons. Somehow six passengers, a pilot, and a tank of fuel fit comfortably into our rectangular wicker basket. The pilots communicated over walkie-talkies as all four balloons took to the sky.
Steering a balloon is truly an art; it requires patience, timing, and finesse. “The way you steer a balloon is by altitude,” Mackie says “Different altitudes have different wind directions and wind speeds.” Mackie releases the hot gas into the balloon to climb higher. He can gently pull on a rope to release hot air and descend.
The steering capability of modern balloons was greatly improved by Tracy Barnes, owner of Blimp Works, who invented the ‘parachute vent’ or ‘parachute valve’ as it’s sometimes referred to, which is now the most common type of top vent.
“The parachute valve is one of the most important innovations to the safety of hot air ballooning,” Charles Willard, vice president of Blimp Works, says. “Before the parachute valve, balloons had a system sort of like a twist tie on a bread bag. Once you opened it to land, there was no turning back, you were committed.” But with Barnes’ invention, if a pilot starting to land spots a power line he had not previously noticed, or a change in wind direction, he can now release hot air, which will close the parachute valve and allow the balloon to rise again.
“It’s a beautiful design in terms of simplicity and dependability,” Willard says. Barnes, who built his first balloon in 1961, was inducted into the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame in 2008. Now in his 70s, Barnes runs Blimp Works from their headquarters in Statesville, North Carolina.
As we float about 3,000 feet above the ground, Mackie points out Mount Pisgah, Cold Mountain, and even Mount Mitchell far in the distance. We glide above forests, farms, and houses. The pilots keep constant contact and note each other’s locations as we begin to fly towards a gap in the mountains ahead of us.
[quote float=”right”]Suddenly we hear an airplane approaching. “Oh, that’s Junior,” Mackie says. “He’s about 85 years old. He flies that plane every morning.” A bright red two-seater plane passes by at our altitude.[/quote]We wave and Junior dips his wing to say hello.
People balloon for lots of occasions: birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations. But one of the most popular things to do seems to be getting engaged in a balloon. Over walkie-talkie we heard announced that an engagement went down in Bowers’ balloon. Not to be outdone, one of our passengers gets down on one knee and pulls out a gorgeous diamond ring. After a very enthusiastic ‘yes’ from the bride-to-be, we all watch nervously as she gets the ring securely on her finger. Who can forget Bowers’ warning: “Anything drops out of a balloon, you’re probably not getting it back.”
Now that the groom-to-be can relax, we all return to the beautiful scenery. A breeze feels good as the day heats up; unfortunately the breeze is not taking us where we want to go. Mackie confers with the other balloons to figure out where to pick up the wind direction he’s looking for. After an altitude adjustment we are back on track.
“Asheville is not an easy place to fly,” Willard says. “You need someone good. Mountains offer their own challenges; the wind flow is affected, and there are not as many places to land because so much of the area is undeveloped.”
Mackie scans the possibilities as he plans his descent. “We have nicknames for everybody who let’s us land,” Mackie says “There’s the pool guy and the bee guy. I think we’ll go for the helicopter guy.”
Below us, one the other balloons is attempting to land in a small yard. Crewmembers on the ground are waiting to grab hold of the tethers.
“I knew a guy landed in a stream in the middle of the forest,” Mackie recalls. “It took him the whole day to get out of there.”
Our landing spot is a beautiful home with a huge freshly mowed yard. The owner comes out to greet us and show us the photos he took of our landing.
As we climb out of the balloon there is a combination of relief and accomplishment. A couple guys admit they felt more nervous in a balloon than they did skydiving. But now we can all giggle at our nerves while we celebrate with champagne and French cheese, a traditional finale to ballooning.
Bowers, who started as a Presbyterian minister, sees ballooning as a great fit with the work he is doing now creating leadership and team building programs.[quote float=”left”]“With ballooning you literally shift perspective, and that’s a great metaphor for what it takes to see another person’s viewpoint,” Bowers explains. “Or if you’re trying to land and you’re stressed out, you can climb higher and suddenly more options present themselves.[/quote] Similarly, if we can get some distance from our everyday troubles, we can loosen our emotional attachment and better problem solve.”
There’s a real sense of camaraderie among these veteran balloon pilots. “It’s much more fun to balloon with other balloons,” Mackie admits.
“A formal pilot is trained to start with a flight plan; where he will land, what altitude he will fly. It’s all very regimented,” Willard says, “but with a balloon, the only thing you know for sure is where you will take off.” According to Willard, a pilot like Mackie is a rarity; both formally trained and yet able to let loose and go on the spontaneous adventure that ballooning offers.
“I’m more careful piloting a balloon than I am a 747,” Mackie quips.
Mackie balloons all over the world, even hydrogen ballooning in Europe. “We go for a couple days,” Mackie says. “We’ll sleep in the balloon.” But despite all of his experience ballooning in different locals, he has a favorite spot. “This right here is the most beautiful spot in the world to balloon,” Mackie says.
Admittedly, hovering midair with the Blue Ridge Mountains receding in all directions, farmlands spread below, and a glorious blue-pink sky above, it’s a breathtaking sight.
Asheville Hot Air Balloons, Rick Bowers:
Asheville Balloon Company, Tom Mackie:
Blimp Works, Inc., Tracy Barnes & Charles Willard:
Firefly Balloons, local manufacturers of hot air balloons utilizing Tracy Barnes’ designs:
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