I’m irrationally fearful of heights and I’m incurably thirsty for new adventures. And there we were, in a huge parking lot amidst the Sedona red rocks, in the wee hours of the morning before sunrise. This was going to be our novice hot air balloon ride!
My husband and I were “helping” the crew blow up a gigantic, buoyant beauty with lemon-yellow and avocado-green horizontal stripes and a black collar stripe around her neck.
When we first saw her, she was lying on her side. A huge wicker basket (gondola) was tied to her neck by a tangled array of ropes. Gondolas serve as the passengers’ cabin-cum-cockpit for hot air balloon flights. They come in various sizes. This one had had a maximum capacity of seven people.
The Northern Lights crewmembers were pumping her up with huge floor fans. Occasionally they shot bursts of propane-driven flame-balls from a burner located at the bottom of the gondola into her deep interior.
In a matter of minutes, she silently rose up on her side. A couple more minutes passed and she stood up erect – tall and mighty. Fully inflated, she stood about 80 feet tall and 70 feet wide. She was impatiently bouncing up and down as if trying to grab her reluctant gondola lover to elope into the sky.
Five of us, including our pilot, Blair, jumped over the high wicker sides and into the gondola with the help of the crewmembers. The flaming propane burner was on the floor of the gondola and we were standing around it. Then off we went – up, up, and up, cruising to about 2,000 feet above the ground. It was a smooth and silent take-off.
Generally when we picture going airborne, most of us think of airplanes that go through a lengthy and noisy rendezvous with the runways to culminate in a take-off. It is completely different with hot air balloon take-offs. And there are no seat belts to fasten!
We drifted along with the slight breeze, over the breathtaking red rocks, bushes, meadows and a state highway. We even spotted some wildlife in the bushes. It was serene with a twist of anxiety. Maybe it was my acrophobia that gave it the twist. Or maybe everybody felt the same way on realizing that we were about 2000 feet up in the air and separated from the vast open space by just a thin wicker frame. Nevertheless, it was a mesmerizing joy ride.
As we were floating along, Blair occasionally pulled a trigger near the propane burner and maneuvered a network of ropes in the gondola. He was opening the shutters of the balloon to let streams of hot air into her. Hot air balloons work on the principle that when heated air collects within the balloon, it becomes lighter than the surrounding air to make it float. By themselves, these balloons are like rudderless ships; they cannot be steered. They need a favorable air current to help the pilot steer them to the required destination.
About an hour went by on this breathtaking float, and then it was time for us to make our touchdown. Blair was constantly in contact with the ground crew though his radio. The ground crew is also called the chase crew because they literally “chase” the balloon to keep track of her to help with the landing. We could see our chase crew below, closely following us.
I saw Blair hurl down a rope. Like hungry tigers leaping on an escaping prey, two guys from the chase crew jumped up, grabbed the rope and pulled our gondola down to an open spot among the bushes. We had a safe – if not precisely smooth – landing!
Soon after the support crew deflated the balloon and started packing her up, they served us a delicious champagne breakfast.
It was a truly memorable experience! I will do it again – with less anxiety.
Whether you are airsick or seasick or heights-sick, or whatever your phobias may be, take time to enjoy life. Don’t let your fear paralyze you, whatever the “it” may be, if you wished that you could do “it.” Just park your fears and do “it.” You will enjoy “it”! My “it” was the balloon ride.