21 June 2011

baskets and balloons

I volunteer for the most random and interesting things sometimes!  I blame my years in Girl Scouts.  A bit after we moved here to Pensacola, I volunteered to help with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (read about it here if you haven't yet).  This past weekend, I volunteered with . . .

. . . the Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival!

I was digging around online for prices on taking an actual balloon flight (um, super expensive!) and came across a festival that they do every year in Foley, Alabama.  Foley is actually pretty close to us since we live near the state line.  The festival's website had a callout for "balloon crew" volunteers, and I figured it was the closest I would get to riding in a balloon, so why not?

I signed up to do both Friday and Saturday evenings.  I was paired with the pilot for the RE/MAX balloon.  This guy is a full-time balloonist, and he basically just does PR with it for the company.  How cool is that?  So on that first night, he told me that half the pilots fly (before sunset) and the other half "glow."  We were set to glow on Friday and fly on Saturday.

I was so impressed that the whole balloon contraption fit in his van.  All in all, these are actually very simple machines.
The basket is pushed up against that back window.

Also, on that first night, I was the only one to show up for his crew.  Our pilot said that two people could set it up, but since we were out at the festival, among many other balloons, we just borrowed some people from the neighboring crew (which had like 15 people).  A high school-aged girl came over to help, and it was very obvious she knew what she was doing.  She actually is the daughter of a balloon pilot, and her grandfather had owned a balloon also.  Her stories about growing up in a ballooning family were pretty interesting (and funny, too).  She goes around to various festivals and events with her mom all summer, helping out.  That certainly beat out any summer jobs I ever had.

Setting up the balloon really wasn't that hard.  Basically, you just lay the basket on its side, attach the deflated balloon to it, and then fill it with cool air.  Once it's gotten really big on its side, the pilot turned on the burner and got some hot air into it to make it rise.  The basket was attached by a rope to the back of the van so the balloon couldn't go too far.

The entire balloon was contained in this rather small bag.

The balloon being stretched out, attached to the basket.
My task through all of this was to hold some ropes at the mouth so the cold air could blow into it.  The fan looked small, but was very powerful and very loud.  B came with me to help on the second night, so here he is on the opposite side of the mouth while it was being filled with air.

Speaking of that second night, our pilot was supposed to fly and take up a few passengers from the local RE/MAX office and then we were supposed to "chase" him in the van to his landing point.  We drove around a bit trying to find a good place for takeoff, but then the wind picked up too much.  Apparently, they can't fly if the wind is more than 10 knots--which is basically just a bit more than a gentle breeze.  Oh, and they can't fly after sunset since they can't be seen (no lights) and can't see power lines.  Hot air balloons don't have any precise steering, so it's all about catching updrafts and having a good starting place.  Also, to operate one,  you have to have a pilot's license, and yes, balloons are regulated by the FAA.

Adding the hot air to get it off the ground
 If I volunteer with this again next year, I'd probably choose the morning sessions (competition flights--for accuracy, not speed), since the wind is usually very gentle then and all the pilots get to fly.  Downside: have to be there at 5:30am.  So I chose the "glow" this year, and got to do it twice.

One balloon did make it in the air that second night, but he was definitely pushing it on the "sunset" thing.

On the first night I was there, once we got our balloon set up, the pilot invited me to get in the basket with him to give it more weight on the ground.  The basket was pretty small, and was crowded with three 15-gallon propane tanks, so you could only fit three people at most.  We had our other two crew members holding it on the sides.  After a bit, I told him if he let it go a few feet in the air, I could cross it off my bucket list.  He obliged.  Which means . . .

✔ 7. Ride in a hot air balloon

Check!  Okay, so it wasn't what I was expecting, but I can say that I went on a "tethered ride" and got about 6 feet in the air!  We went slightly over the heads of the crew members on the outside of the basket.  It was a pretty cool minute of my life, and now I really do want to go on a full-out balloon ride in the sky.

The second night, the wind was pretty rough, and our basket was definitely tipping back and forth with us in it.  Here's a video I took on my camera while inside the basket on the ground.

Yeah, we started tipping as I said the word "balloon."  Oh, and pardon my obnoxious laugh.

B and me in the basket with the pilot lighting it up behind us
It was really beautiful to see all the balloons lit up.  I actually never got to see ours lit up since I spent almost my whole time in the basket, but it probably looks like their logo.  One thing I learned is that almost all balloons have trading cards, so if you're ever at a festival with tethered balloons, go up to the pilots and ask for a card!

Have you ever been up in a hot air balloon?  Do you think my "tethered ride" should count?


  1. Wow that is amazing! I have a huge fear of riding in a hot air balloon... but maybe one day :)

  2. That is so cool! It makes me excited for the annual Balloon Fiesta here in Albuquerque every October. :)

    Check out my own balloon story here: http://tegansmusings.blogspot.com/2010/10/balloons-in-city.html

    I hope you volunteer next year in the morning even though it's really early - I have heard it's an amazing site! :)