BALLOONS, the Hot Air Kind

“Up, up and away, in my beautiful balloon…”  The Fifth Dimension musically wooed us to soar high and wide. Marilyn McCoo’s crooning pulled our hearts into the sky, triggering a yearning to throw off gravity, that force pithily called “surly” by a young John Magee, student pilot. “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth” he wrote, in his poem, “High Flight,” decades before. (There were “laughter silvered wings” in there, too.)

It’s just that. And beautiful? Today, balloons strive to be just as splendid as the silk and paper wonder that carried the French Mongolfier brothers’ experimental balloons aloft. Not that the brothers themselves had the nerve to take that initial test flight. They planted a chemistry teacher in it, Professor Pilâtre de Rozier, shouting a loud and hopeful “Bon voyage, mon ami!” to the brave volunteer rising above them.

Before him, there had been an aeronaut trio team of chicken, duck, and sheep. They’d had a four-minute ride, coming down with a harmless bounce. That cleared the way to send a man aloft. There are no notes recording a clucking or quacking riffle of feathers, or a panicky bleat from the sheep, but one assumes a gratitude to be back on terra firma.

A balloon festival should be on your bucket list. Maybe a ride? They sell rides at festivals. Balloons range from whimsical to stellar – “Pigs Fly” is my favorite, a building-size pink piggy. The most dazzling hot air balloons are stitched from a rainbow array of nylon. From Abilene to Albuquerque to Quechee Vermont, there are a plethora of colorful fiestas.

I caught a ride in Albuquerque, covering the event for our Aero Club of New England. That gave me a press pass to go aloft, gratis. But it also plopped me too firmly on the ground, flopping the balloon over into dragging mode in a wind beyond the capabilities of the pilot. I still can see grasses whizzing by my eyes – and feel my sternum go “pop”.  Never mind. I got great pictures.


It seems to be my karma to get pilots who land hard. Turkey was another bust, over Cappadocia, banging down hard on a hillside and putting me into a wheel chair and early flight home. Was it worth it? You betcha.

It went like this. Up at dawn in still air at a quiet valley bottom, we eagerly scrambled into a ten-passenger basket. But wait. A hailing jeep burst around a boulder into our gathering, and the driver jumped out. “It’s looking breezy up there!”


A preflight observer had driven up to the plateau to see how things lay. He looked gloomy. The air was stirring up. There was a storm in the offing. Far away as yet, on the horizon.

“How many knots? If ten or less, we can go.” Our pilot was a swarthy, studly commercial pilot with Turkish Air. He was greedy?

“We’ll be fine.” he mused a moment, then announced a “go”.  Going adrift, viewing the ancient wind-and-water-carved hoodoos of the Capadoccian terrain, was good moonlighting duty for the underpaid captain. He didn’t want to lose this chunk of money.

Over three hundred churches and chapels lay below, carved out of ancient volcanic rock, “tuff.”  It was believed that if you built a church, paradise was guaranteed. Christians occupied the valley back then. There’s a complete multi-level town tunneled under there, with a giant passageway wheel that when activated, rolls and rumbles across to stymie raiding invaders. Claustrophobic for me, but a fine hideout with escape routes for the persecuted. Five levels they said. I could only handle two. It was a loopy rabbit warren, not nice level floors.


The Turk stood beside me; we compared notes while he handled the gas flames and control lines. I had more air hours than he, but none piloting a balloon.

Ahead, distant massive purple clouds threatened our path, and being a hot air vehicle, we had no motor to change course.  Dark and ominous, a horizon-wide storm drew nearer; the ground below was scooting by alarmingly.  Our lighter-than-air vehicle was being pulled uncontrollably; we were being sucked towards those clouds with a guarantee of being drawn up into them and pitched about mercilessly. Winds, air currents, had been formed by rapidly building, rising, cumulus storm clouds.

Suddenly the sweat in the Turk’s arm pits turned rank with fear. Uh-oh, thought I.

Suddenly he bellowed, his face a mask of fear, “Crouch down! Squat! We have to land now! We’re going to head for that hilltop patch there to avoid power lines.”

But not. We were sinking… a forceful orographic valley downdraft made sure he didn’t quite make it to that target hilltop, despite all the flaming heat he fired up into the balloon. It hardly rose an inch. As we watched, cowering and crouching, the hillside chillingly ran at us. He came in too low and missed the field, thereby, happily, missing those wires, thank God. But the struggling ten-passenger basket abruptly, briskly and meanly, whanged sideways into the slope.


We were shaken but mostly unhurt, and scrambled out into steep dirt, grabbing grasses to hitch ourselves upwards. The chase crew met us at the edge. We cheered and applauded our survival. But – we should not have been taken up in the first place.

I don’t crouch or squat too well, and ended with a chipped patella. That was my third flight.

The first of my four balloon rides (so far) was a perfect tiptoed sunset landing, swooshing between someone’s backyard willow trees, in central Massachusetts.  The next, a dawn landing in a gentle pasture, near Brisbane Down Under, surrounded by curious horses. A curious, warbling currawong came to greet and perch on the basket.

Two out of four, perfect.  Fifty percent perfect isn’t bad.