A Festival of Balloons

Like most balloonists, I attend several balloon festivals each year.  These events provide an opportunity to fly in competition, see old friends and put on a bit of a show for the public.  This year, I was sponsored by the New York State Festival of Balloons to fly a helium cluster balloon at their event.  This would be my first public cluster flight, and it gave me an entirely new perspective on the term "festival of balloons"....

The New York State Festival of Balloons takes place on Labor Day weekend in the small town of Dansville, about an hour south of Rochester.  The town is located in a  valley, surrounded by farmland and beautiful green woods.

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I was scheduled to fly on the afternoon of September 4, just before the hot-air balloon launch.   We started inflating my balloons at 3 PM in the hangar of the local airport. My crew chief Ernie Hartt, his wife Jenny Wolf and my ballooning student Adam Glover had come out from San Diego to lend me a hand.  Also assisting were Bill Lent and the contingent from Lent's RV Sales, my local hosts for the weekend.

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Between balloon crewpeople and volunteers from Dansville, we had a lot of help, and the inflation of the forty-eight balloons went quickly.  It was amazing to see the huge, colorful balloons filling the hangar.

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At 5:30 PM, we moved the balloons on their sandbags out of the hangar.  I got into my harness, and Ernie supervised the crew as they attached the balloons to the webbing straps that hold them in layers.  I had a lot of lift.  Even with my water ballast bags attached, I still had fifty or sixty pounds of lift; crew clipped some sandbags to me to hold me down. 

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At 6:00 PM, my crew moved me and my balloons down the runway to the other end of the airport, where the balloon launch field and the carnival area for the festival spectators was located.  An announcer was talking on the PA system: sharing fascinating ballooning facts, encouraging last-minute purchases of balloon rides.  The other balloonists had their equipment laid out, but I was supposed to launch before they inflated. 

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Several hundred people were already standing and sitting behind the plastic tape separating them from the launch field, watching me.  It was strange, like being on stage.  I waved, and a few people waved back.  Several dozen people crossed the barrier to get a closer look at me, but the festival staff moved them back.  I told my crew to hold on tight to my harness and unclip me from the sandbags, then wait for the signal.

Weird thoughts seem to bubble up at such moments.  I was suddenly struck by the fact that, out of all of the hundreds of people here, I was the one tied to all the helium balloons.  What did everyone else know that I didn't?  You get yourself into some weird situations, I told myself reprovingly.

Hell, my self replied.  It'd drive you crazy if you weren't the one who was doing it.  You love this.

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"Well, it looks like he's ready" said the announcer over the PA system..  "So let's all help launch that cluster balloon.  Ready?" I looked up at the huge round latex balloons straining at their lines above me.  The crew was holding me down by my harness, my feet swinging a few inches off the ground.  "Ten! Nine!"  The crowd picked up the chant.  "Eight!  Seven!" Photo flashes were going off.   "Six!"   My heart was racing.   "Five!"  It was like being an astronaut--  "Four!"   --or maybe a human sacrifice!  "Three!" An offering to the sky gods! "Two!"  Protect the harvest and we'll send you up this guy with all the balloons...   "One!  LIFT-OFF!"  The crew let me go.

 

"Ciao," I said to Ernie.  "Ciao," said Ernie, as I rose into the air.

 

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The crowd was cheering. I waved and kick my feet as my bouquet of balloons pulled me up faster and faster, up into the cloudy white sky....

The airport dropped away below me.  I continued to wave until I could no longer see the faces of the crowd, then scooted back into my harness to get comfortable.  I was rising briskly at about six-hundred feet per minute, drifting slowly to the north.  Below, I could see the colorful envelopes of the hot air balloons start to puff open.  The distant buzz of inflater fans grew fainter, until the sky was completely quiet except for a faint hum that might have been from cars on I-390, winding through the valley below me. feet.gif (28779 bytes)
 
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There was a layer of cloud above, but the late afternoon was very beautiful.  The squares of farmland alternated with the darker green of woods, spreading out to the horizon.  As I rose past 5,000 feet,  I could see three of the Finger Lakes off to the east.  The hot-air balloons had launched, but most were staying far below, tiny colorful baubles against the green countryside. 

Above me, my balloons bumped against one another gently.  I could see the cloudbase above much more clearly now.  I cut the strings to some balloons, watching them bump up against the cluster, then float up out of sight.  Finally, at about 8,000 feet AGL, I leveled out.  I admired the view for a few minutes, then cut away a few more balloons to start a slow descent

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I talked to my chase crew on the radio.  I was four or five miles north of Dansville now.  I dropped some of my water ballast to level out at a few hundred feet.  I passed over some farms, then a large wooded area.  I had been in the air about an hour, and sunset was approaching.  After ten minutes over the woods, I drifted over a large complex of buildings that my crew told me was the state prison.  I saw some prisoners out in an exercise yard, shouting up at me; I caught the word "balloons" but nothing else. 

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North of the prison, I burst some balloons to set up to land in what I thought was a harvested corn field.  I realized my mistake at about fifty feet, but went ahead and touched down, in corn higher than my head.  I called my crew.  One vehicle could kind of see me in the distance, but didn't know how to get to where I was; the other vehicle had no idea where I was.  I did some six-foot jumps to peek up over the tops of the corn, but trees surrounded the field, and I couldn't see the road in.  Finally, after waiting ten minutes, I drained a couple of ballast bags and lifted off again.

I stayed low, a few hundred feet in the air, drifting north out of the corn field over some woods.  It was nearly sunset now, the sky grey with clouds, with a thin red smudge of setting sun on the horizon.  It was incredibly peaceful.  I was drifting north, following a thind band of trees that bordered more fields to my west.  Beyond those fields, a quarter mile away, I could see occasional headlights out on a highway.

I pulled down a balloon from the cluster and retied it beside me.  My line followed the edge of the trees, but with a very slight angle out into the fields.  Doing the spit test, I could see that below me, the wind was straight north, or maybe slightly back toward the trees.  There was a good dirt road along the edge of the trees, leading to another dirt road between the corn fields leading out toward the highway.  Up ahead, the field ended in more woods.   I waited until I was a few yards into the field, then burst a balloon.  I descended, but too slowly.  At fifty feet my shallow angle into the field stopped, and I began to moved back toward the trees.  I dropped water from of my ballst bags hastily, to avoid the clipping the treetops, and went back up to a hundred feet.

I was pretty close to the end of the field, but it looked like there was time for one more try.  The wind was taking me on the same shallow angle onto the field again.  I pulled down two more balloons, and tied them next to me.   When I was a few yards into the field, I burst both.  This time I dropped faster, and before the lower wind could push be back over the trees, I bumped down gently on the dirt road, next to an irrigation ditch.

I called crew on the radio and tried to describe where I was.   Then, I followed the dirt road running beside the trees, out to the other dirt road leading between the fields to the main highway.  My balloons carried me along  in little three- and four-foot hops: almost weightless there in the twilight, as light as my spirits.  

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