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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Hot Air Ballooning - Arizona

A hot air balloon ride has always been on my bucket list.  It was one of those adventures at the back of my mind, something I would do someday, somewhere at the bottom of my list.  Something I always wanted to do but for many reasons, never actually did.  

It's too expensive... there isn't a lot of it here... I am terrified of heights.... and on and on. When I had to chance to visit Arizona, and one of the activity selections was "hot air ballooning" I couldn't believe my luck.  Heck, I even passed up on whitewater rafting to wake up at 4:45 am and meet a bunch of strangers in a field somewhere in Arizona.   A Sonoran sunrise as seen from a hot air balloon - I finally had my opportunity to cross another item off the bucket list and step inside the basket of a hot air balloon.

We met at the balloon launch site at dark thirty where we piled into a van towing our basket and balloon in a trailer behind us.  After a 20 (ish) minute drive, we pulled into a larger field/parking area where several other groups were getting their balloons ready for launch or were in the process of launching.  As our group got the basket and balloon ready, we got to watch colorful balloons launch into the orange glowing sky all around us.  I am not one for over emotional posts or sappy captions but there is something about standing in the desert at sunrise, watching these massive balloons take flight that makes you appreciate an early morning, the beauty of travel, the ease of adventure and well... life.  

The baskets were taken off the trailer and balloons pulled out of their large bags.  Some baskets fit 6 people while larger baskets fit groups up to 20.  My group of 6 or so huddled around, watching this ornate process and helped with the equipment.  Large industrial style  fans were set up on the ground and all around us large colorful balloons starts to take shape.  After blowing cool air into the balloons with these large fans, warm air is blown in from the burner and the balloons start to rise.  

Our tour company was called Rainbow Ryders and everyone I met working for the company was courteous, kind, and professional.  Our pilot (yes, they are pilots) was informative and tolerated my 4,000 questions about hot air ballooning, Arizona, land conservation, and his summers in Maine. 

  • The popular sport balloon is approximately 55 feet wide (diameter) and 70 feet high (think 7 story building)
  • How does it work?  Warm air rises - large propane burners (liquid propane gas -LPG)  add hot air into the balloon and the air trapped inside the balloon is less dense than the air outside - up we float!
  • The basket does NOT sway- I was amazed how smooth the ride was. 
  • You do not feel how fast you are going as you are moving with the air mass. 
  • Most balloons fly between 1,200 to 3,000 feet - it truly doesn't feel that high.  
  • The pilots check the air currents and launch a test balloon in the morning to see the wind speed and direction to plan their landing points.  
  • The balloons will fly from ground level to a couple thousand feet above ground level, the pilots are truly at the mercy of the wind direction and speed.
  • The pilots can "steer" the balloons as different altitudes provide different wind and steering is made by adjusting the height of the balloon
  • A "chase crew" follows the balloon via radio contact with the pilot constantly updating your location and speed throughout the balloon flight - they then meet you at the landing site (which is obviously not where you started)
  • The flight was about an hour in the baskets
  • It gets quite warm in the balloon, especially under the heater that is constantly going ON and OFF to add warm air into the balloon
  • Balloon pilots must have a Lighter Than Air (LTA) pilot's license pertaining specifically to balloons. This license is issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • Balloons have the right of way in the airspace...LTA pilots regularly fly in classes G, D, and E airspaces and will occasionally wander into class C. According to our pilot, these balloons could even land at an airport if needed.

All balloon tour took us high in the sky, above and below various other balloons offering a unique perspective on the Arizona landscape. I was absolutely amazed just how quiet and smooth the balloon ride was. You do not feel any wind, and barely feel like you are moving. The only sounds are the burner firing up to add more warm air into the balloon. As someone who is not a fan of heights, I was surprised how "non-threatening" it was to be this high up in the sky with just a wicker basket to contain me. The walls of the basket are quite high and at no point was I worried about the height or safety of the balloon ride. Towards the end of our flight, the balloon soared over a few neighborhoods and we laughed over the identical neighborhoods, with each home featuring a small wading pool and putting green (when in Arizona). Our pilot radioed over to the other pilots and chase crew and before we knew it (about an hour later truthfully), we were at the landing site.

After an uneventful and surprisingly smooth landing, we were greeted with a high-class breakfast of pastries, fruits, yogurts, and my favorite, champagne. I soon learned that champagne and ballooning were an old tradition, one I could certainly get behind.  Tradition says that the pilot/aeronaut is to present the landowner on whose property you make your final landing with a ceremonial bottle of champagne - a tradition stemming back to the first balloonists in France.  Another tradition, this one more appropriate to our adventure, is the "First Flight Ceremony" which provides a memorable finish for someone taking their first free flight in a balloon.  We received our flight certificate while enjoying mimosas at the most perfect desert picnic.  

Comically enough, the other members of our basket were all of Mormon faith which meant booze was a no-no.  Which also meant Thatcher and I had an entire large bottle of champagne to ourselves at approximately 10 am.  

Maybe it was the abundance of champagne, or maybe it was just the tranquility of the morning spent soaring over the Arizona desert on an impossibly beautiful morning.  Whatever it was, I left the landing site blissfully happy that I had the opportunity to take a hot air balloon ride in such a beautiful landscape.  I was also acutely aware of the need for people to experience this type of flight, especially as our public lands start to shrink, and our open landscape turns into perfectly patched and planned neighborhoods.  I left the balloon ride with one big item checked off my bucket list, and an even stronger advocate for open space.

Thank you Rainbow Ryders for an amazing morning spent a thousand feet above the desert.  

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