Hot-Air Balloon Lift-Off
First Flight in a Hot-Air Balloon
Cornwall, a city of 46,000 in Ontario, Canada, has a yearly summer festival. Part of that festival is known as ‘The Cornwall Lift Off.’ The Lift-Off relates to hot-air balloons that take off from Cornwall’s LamoureuxPark, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. My wife Ell and I had watched them over the years as they drifted over our back deck. We decided one year, after a few too many margaritas, to take part instead of watching, and booked ourselves on a balloon flight.
We were told to wear sturdy shoes and pants and be at the park early. Unfortunately, early meant 6.00am, which didn’t sit well with my internal clock, but apparently it was that early in the morning in case the wind changed and they had to relocate the launch site. There were going to be over 20 hot-air balloons, and the flight would last approximately an hour.
We turned up at LamoureuxPark, 30 minutes early and mingled with the other disjointed people who were wandering about waiting for a balloon to appear from thin air. The scenery was breathtaking, with the St. Lawrence to the South and the SeawayBridge in the background. The Seaway Bridge, or to give it its proper name, the Three Nations Bridge, soared from Canada across to the native reservation of Akwesasne, before taking another leap to the United States.
We were just finishing our coffees when the first SUV’s with trailers attached, began turning into the park. Soon all of the SUV’s were spaced out around the park, and the trailers were unhitched. Almost immediately a man, clutching lots of small hydrogen balloons walked into the middle of the park and began to let the balloons free. They kept low and headed south-west, and even we could see that if the real balloons were blown up and released, they would end up flying straight into the SeawayBridge. It was obvious, although the wind wasn’t very strong, that we weren’t going to be taking off. I think I hid my relief quite well, and I even managed to say “Aw! What a shame!” with a straight face.
That was when a slim, fit young man approached us and introduced himself as our ‘Pilot’ Both of us raised our eyebrows at the ‘pilot’ description, but, as Ell said later, “It does make sense. It’s much better than ‘person in charge of blowing up and letting down a balloon .’ The pilot told us that in order to avoid the bridge; we would be taking off from further north in the city.
Ell and I, and another two passengers accompanied the pilot to the new launch site. One of our companions refused to speak to us, even when I introduced us. He grunted and turned away - it’s the affect I have on people. The other, younger person shook hands and introduced himself as Thomas. On the journey our pilot informed us that one of the other balloon’s pilots, a woman, had her own balloon, as had her husband. I was completely awed at this news – a two-balloon family?
When we arrived at our new take-off spot, the ‘chase crew’ opened the trailer and took out a huge tarpaulin, which they set out to the west of the trailer. The crew took the basket out of the trailer and set it up quite close to the vehicles. It hadn’t dawned on me that there would have to be a chase-crew, who would follow us on the surface in order to bring us back. It wasn’t as if the balloon could fly back against the wind. Silly me!
The pilot and crew rigged up a framework which they attached to each corner of the basket, and then connected the burners to one of the three propane cylinders which were snugly fitted in three corners of the basket. After connecting the burners, the pilot pulled a double handle, to check the burner jets and a sheet of flame shot about 15 feet into the air, frightening the crap out of everybody. After unrolling the folded up balloon, two of the chase crew started up a generator and began blowing cold air into the balloon as they held it open. It got bigger very quickly, and that was when they attached it to the basket’s framework.
Then the balloon started being blown up and heated by a double propane burner that was inside the basket. The noise of the burner was indescribable and was enough to twist the mind. The basket was attached to the SUV and the trailer. Puzzled, I asked why it was being done. The short answer was, ‘If the balloon is going up, they go up’ - in other words the vehicles were being used as anchors. We were told to get ready but we had some trouble climbing in as there was only one small slot in the basket for a foot and the slot was too low so that when we tried to swing our legs over we got an ever so slightly sore – em – crotch. All 4 passengers and the pilot were tightly packed. Almost as soon as we were in the basket, the anchor cable was unhitched and we were up, up, and away.
There was no sensation of movement; no thrust from under our feet; no pulling from above us. We were airborne. It was mystical. Some people have compared their first hot-air balloon flight to their first kiss. That is a mundane description. As we rose I could feel the same elation coursing through my veins as I felt when I was a pre-teen and realised I had a crush on my pal’s teenage sister. It was equivalent to my first taste of love. I was mesmerized – open mouthed and drooling mesmerized.
Looking straight down was quite iffy. I have no problem with heights or edges but in the basket I got the feeling that if I looked too far over, I would fall out and plummet down past the ropes and guys. The flight was dreamlike in its silence. We drifted over the northern edge of the city. The view in any direction except south to the Adirondacks was flat. There was nothing to see but flatness all the way to the horizon. I didn’t know of any mountains on Canada’s East coast, but I’m pretty sure there had to be some, and twinned with the Rockies on the West coast, they were the only things stopping Canada from being known as a Continental Shelf.
In that moment, Indian smoke signals made sense.
To the south, we could see the St. Lawrence River and the Power Dam between the USA and Canada. I had imagined that we would hover over the city, but the balloon went with the breeze, and nature didn’t allow hovering; not that there was anything to see of the city, as it was mostly hidden under a panoply of greenery; a truly beautiful city.
In front, and lower than us, were another two festival balloons. One of them went so low at one point that we all held our breath waiting for it to crash into a power line, but thankfully, it lifted over it, before it sunk down over a quarry. We flew over the top of it and I shook my head in disbelief as I took photographs of it. Never in my wildest imaginings did I ever think I would be taking photographs of the top of one balloon, from another balloon.
As we drifted west in complete silence, I wondered if this was how peeping Tom’s felt.
Every second house in Cornwall had a swimming pool, and almost every one had a person who thought they were swimming or sunbathing in utter privacy, whilst we peered down on them from a hundred feet up. At one point we saw a huge buck in a forest clearing, just as our pilot powered up the burner. The poor buck must have wet itself before it took off with its majestic head of antlers tossed back.
Another surprise was the fact that the pilot was in touch with air traffic control. Who would have believed a balloon would need to be in touch with air traffic control - and the chase crew? The chase crew was in a small bus. I could see them following the balloon and at one point when we started getting lower, I saw the bus going down a gravel road where the driver thought we were going to end up/down, but we took off again and he had to do a 3 point turn and chase us again. The chase crews were volunteers and one of them said he had been doing it for years. Although we could see other balloons in front of us, because we were packed in like sardines, I couldn’t move to see what was behind us.
Our pilot told us that he liked to ‘skim the trees’ on the way down, as it helped to slow the balloon down.
Ell and I looked at each other. “Correct me if I’m wrong,” she said, “but isn’t that the equivalent of saying how much you love to hit telephone poles and mail boxes as you slow your car down to save wear and tear on the brakes?”
I nodded, “The only snag is that we don’t have any brakes.”
We both paid more attention after that remark, and it seemed like we were going to land in the corner of a field of stubble, but at the last minute, we rose up and headed for a copse of trees. We didn’t head for the trees so much as head through them. As we approached the trees, it was obvious that the ‘skim the trees’ remark was going to be way off. We hit the first tree about ¾ of the way up it, and the basket was dragged thru it.
The pilot shouted out to cover our faces in case we got whiplash by the branches. The only problem was that at the second tree it wasn’t branches we hit. We smashed into the ‘Y’ of its trunk two thirds of the way up. The balloon kept being pulled through until the basket was horizontal and there was a real fear of us being poured out as we were dragged through. From there on in, it was like something from America’s Funniest Videos. When the basket finally got pulled through, a semi-trunk came whipping back and hit Thomas across the face, cutting his cheeks.
We crashed and bumped across a field of stubble as two of the chase-crew pulled the basket and the pilot tried, not very successfully, to keep the canopy slightly off the ground, by intermittently burning more propane to pump more hot air into it. The basket ended up horizontally, and Ell landed on top of me. She kept laughing her head off all the way across the field, but I had trouble simply breathing. The basket eventually stayed down as the canopy collapsed onto the groundsheet which the chase crew had managed to place under the balloon. I managed to get out from under Ell and she crawled out backwards.
When we got out collective breaths back, we were presented with our ‘High Flying Club’ certificate and shared a bottle of champagne. The four of us managed to keep straight faces as the pilot recited the ‘balloonist’s prayer.’
The winds have welcomed you with softness
The sun has blessed you with its warm hands
You have flown so high and so well
That God has joined you in your laughter
And set you gently back again
Into the loving arms of ‘Mother Earth.’
And I’m sure we would have managed to keep it that way if Thomas hadn’t added a last line, ‘Gently - my ass!’
Later on that evening, as Ell and I complied with Festival tradition and got smashed in the Blue Anchor, we made a vow or two – If we could ever afford it, we would have two cars, two See-Doos, and two Ski-Doos. On our list of insurable contents, there would be no balloons.