My Flight and the Glow

The second morning, instead of setting up and bringing the balloon up in the chaos of the mass ascension field, we went out to the West Mesa. This was after seeing the balloons that did set up to go on the field just zip away again. There was one other balloon near us on the field. While we set up, Merry asked me if I wanted to go up and I answered yes. So she told me that it was likely that there'd be a high wind landing and that I could get injured or killed and to sign on the dotted line. So I did.

Big Bird came up nicely, and we were off. It was astonishingly wonderful up there. Between burner blasts there was utter quiet and we were just floating over the land. It was something like the toy model affect that going up in a plane is like, but without the noise, and we managed to stay close enough to the ground that the toy-effect never really got that well entrenched, especially when I could hear dogs barking all over and there was a kid yelling and waving up at us. So immediate and so close, it was astonishing how much we could hear while up there.

The other really cool thing was watching the chase vehicles coming after us. They were just booking along dirt roads and roads under construction. Finally, near the end of the first hop, we saw Merry take a huge mud puddle with the truck and we could hear the screams of the folks in it and the two awesomely large wings of mud that flung up either side of the truck. Later, we found out that the folks in the bed of the truck hadn't really suffered too much mud damage though the splash had been so spectacular.

We hopped three times after hitting the ground, knees bent and leaning into the oncoming ground, it was fairly handleable. Merry couldn't get real near the balloon, so she ordered us to just do a passenger exchange and get on with flying, so that's what we did. The crew caught us and held onto the basket while the passangers hopped out and both Charles and Kevin were ordered in by Richard and they flew back up again.

We had another exchange of passengers a few more miles away, Patti and a friend of hers named Phil got in and flew off again after another couple of bounces. Another set of fields and they came down again a few miles after that, even, and we could hear Patti whooping it up a bit as the basket bounced on the ground a few times in the higher wind. That time Richard had us move the balloon to a suitable spot and we dropped it, as the wind was coming up pretty hard. We packed it up, and another balloon came down fairly near us, so Kevin and Patti ran over to help crew over there as we finished packing things up. By the time we were ready to go, they still weren't back, so Merry and Richard tried whistling them up, but they didn't come back. So we drove over to where they had dropped and got them.

Kevin's a really intense, short guy with blond hair in a ponytail and a mustache. Charles is a softer looking guy with glasses and quiet voice. Both of them have been called the 'dogs' of the crew, black dog and brown dog. This was actually because there used to be a black dog and a brown dog that would chase champagne corks on the balloon field, and Kevin and Charles filled in for the roles after the dogs had gone elsewhere. They usually ride in the back of the pickup, face into the wind, and they're the hardest working and most knowledgeable crew folks other than Debbie, Richard and Merry. Debbie drives the other chase vehicle. I think that Walt and Cathie are getting up there in experience, but it's really, really keen to listen to all the stories both Charles and Kevin have.

The other nicknames that Kevin has is "Mighty Mouse" because he does tackle all the hard jobs with intensity, which includes the job of squeezing the air of out of the envelope (another name for the cloth shell of the balloon). Basically, the balloon comes down, and the envelope is spread all over the place, people gather it more and more towards the center and then someone has to start from the lines that attach to the balloon and gather all the cloth between their arms and squeeze all the air that's left up to the top of the balloon. Two or three people follow the leader to attenuate it just a bit more, but the hardest job is the first person's in the line. That's the job that Kevin tackles nearly every time and he does it fast.

The top parachute gets reattached to the main body of the balloon, then the top and top lines get rolled up to be put into the bag and then we pile everything into the bag a bit at a time. The two main 'techniques' are hopping the bag towards the basket and stuffing the hopped part of the balloon into the bag, and the other way is to 'walk' the envelope into the bag. The second is only possible if there are enough people to have someone every four feet or so, to support the envelope.

So we packed up and roared back to the field, where we parked and set up awnings, chairs and tables and had a feast from the food that folks had brought. Yum. And then *I* got baptized with champagne to the Irish prayer, and it was fun. Later on, I got pinned by Richard, but that was with one hand down my shirt and the pin on my chest. Hee. Cathie had him readjust it so that she could get a picture, too.

So I had to take a shower after getting back, and I wrote most of day one while waiting for my hair to dry. My wrists are bothering me with all the hauling and weight I'm having to hang from my hands, but that is getting a little better as I figure out better ways to do the work without having to hang things off my hands. Unluckily, the clock with this machine is an hour off the time here in Albuquerque so I missed my nap time as we had to take a little extra time to pick up Janice, who is a girlfriend of Paul's from the airport.

Luckily, my old instincts kicked in pretty well, and as long as things were interesting, I stayed awake just fine.

The Glow started with the tailgating that the mornings ended with. Merry and Richard had decked the pickup out in Christmas lights, which made them tremendously easy to spot. Deb made a huge pot of green chili stew and we all started with a big bowl of that along with soft tortillas. There were vegetables, various desserts and other food to be had as well as the traditional champagne and coolers of pop and beer. Deb also handed out glow-in-the-dark chemical strands for wearing in the dark.

After dinner, the sun started getting closer and closer to the horizon, so we started to set up Big Bird for the Glow.

The Glow is basically where all the balloons are tethered to the ground, and instead of flying, the pilots just use the gas jets to light the balloon up so that everyone can see it in the dark. Richard did an adjustment of his propane burners so that instead of burning clear and hot, they burned yellow and bright and the flame shot up a good 20 feet into the air. Whoof.

We then set up the envelope as usual, and Janice and I got to hold open the mouth of the balloon as they started the cold inflation. I held it open by pulling up on two of the steel cables that attach the balloon to the basket and by putting a foot down on the edge of the skirt that lies between the main envelop and the basket. The skirt is good about directing the hot air into the envelope and takes most of the heat abuse that the nylon can't handle, so it's a bit tougher than the body of the balloon. Then they aimed the lawnmower engine powered fan at me and started blowing.

There were bits of dirt and grit that came with the wind, and I got pelted along the backs of my legs quite a bit. The air, though, really did quite a job of filling the big envelop and I could see the air front billowing through the cloth until it hit the top of the balloon. Kevin was holding the crown line, which is a line that is connected to the very top of the envelope and it serves, during inflation, for keeping the whole envelope a little bit more under control and keeping it pointing in a particular direction during inflation.

When the envelope was mostly full, but still lying on the ground, Richard spoke to both Jan and I and gave full instructions on what to do as he made the balloon hot. Basically, he'd be directing a blast from the propane burners into the envelope, and we had to protect our eyes and hold on tight to keep the burners from hitting the skirt but also ready to let go as Big Bird would go up. There was also an anchor line that we were to hold to help guide the balloon into place after it was up. When it went up, the lines from the envelope to the basket would take us with it if we were too tenacious, so we were to let go of those as soon as they lifted, but hold onto the anchor lines. Finally, no matter what, even if I dropped a line, I was absolutely, positively, and totally NOT to jump into the path of the burners to catch anything.

The burner heat was intense. So hot it felt like it was crisping the hairs along the back of my neck and legs, and I hung on, pulling the mouth up and open as it burned on and on. I turned away my face, completely, and could just barely breath the air on that side of my body. Later, I was brushing my hair and a lot of short pieces came out, crisped by the heat. Cathie had come in to help hold the bottom edge of my side out just a little more, and Merry was spotting me, just to make sure. When the burner went off Cathie had to back up because the heat was so intense she really shouldn't and couldn't face it.

The balloon started to rise. I could see it because I was looking towards the top, and I could see it rising, abruptly, absolutely. As it rose, the envelope started to tilt, and Richard tilted the basket and the burners with it. Two helpers on either side of the basket helped him keep the angle of the burners lined up with the angle of the envelope and he gradually kept blasting more hot air into the balloon. I felt the lines lift from my hands and so I let them go, and stepped back with the anchor line I was also holding, helping to guide the floating envelope up and over our heads.

It was like magic. There is nothing like seeing, feeling a seven story tall structure *float* over my head, feeling it rise and glide into place was just astonishing, and looking up into the glare of the burner, I could see the roofing circle of the parachute top flying high over our heads.

I spent the next half an hour being dead weight, and helping Richard make absolutely sure that the balloon was going to stay where it was. Richard pulled Walt into the basket with him, and they did burner fun. Walt needed some tethered balloon experience, so this qualified. After my shift being an anchor I started to wander about the field, which was filled with other balloons as well as the special shapes and on the command of some radio station, they were doing burns and flicker burns and the like to light up all the balloons at once and on cue.

The roar of the burners was utterly intense and when the balloons were glowing, the ground was completely lit up by the flames and the colors of all the balloons all around us and above us. Halfways like a ceiling, halfways like a whole sky just filled with light and color from where I was standing, on the ground, at the feet of all these colossal creatures. One balloon's coloring was that of watermelon shapes, big crescents of pink with black seeds and all strips of light and dark greens, and when it glowed, they lit hundreds of yards around it and all the people and other balloons around them.

Big Bird itself was glorious in the darkness. The yellow nylon lighting up very, very well compared to the darker colored balloons. There was one navy blue and silver one that Merry asked, very loudly, as to why the heck it was there as it didn't light up at all when the flames were turned up.

Eventually, the program ended, and various balloons started to get taken down. Amusingly enough there was so much hot air from the balloons that were venting and being taken down that the balloons that were still up started to experience thermals and started to get buffeted around a little. We took Big Bird down in nearly pitch darkness, with just the light from the headlights to see by, so we didn't put the parachute back into the top and bundled everything up right quick. In the dark it would be too easy to get it wrong, so it would be better to put it in with the light of the morning. Richard and Walt then went to get their propane tanks refilled and everyone else set out the lawn chairs for the fireworks.

The fireworks were pretty good, but Cathie had to go to work in the morning, so when Walt got back with Richard, Paul, Walt, Cathie, Janice, John and I piled into the van and went back to their house and to sleep. A very, very full day.

© 1997 by Liralen Li

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