On October 3rd, 2008 we finally heard the hoped for words "We will meet at McDonalds at....."
"We will meet at the McDonalds at....." are words to hope for? They are, if you are calling the balloon hotline. Some of the alternatives were, "The flight for the morning/evening of ____ has been cancelled due to high winds/ high upper level winds/ light winds / forecast rain/ rain/ rain in the past few days causing soggy ground conditions". There was also the hopeful "has been put on hold". The last means that you wake up at 5:00 A.M. to call to hear why the flight has been cancelled. Actually it means you wake up several times thinking about waking up at five to call.
For more narrative scroll down past the pictures.
Hot air balloon rides are fussy creatures. They only happen under a narrow range of atmospheric conditions. They need enough wind to allow the balloon to maneuver but not so much wind to make landing a hazard. Wet balloons are not happy either, nor are farmers if you land in their wet fields and then chew the field up with the recovery vehicle. For a more exhaustive and technical account of necessary conditions, check out this balloon weather link. http://www.start-flying.com/new%20site/balloon_weather.htm
In August 2007, our daughters had gone together and bought Juanita and me a hot air balloon ride. It was good in a number of location throughout Canada. We chose Edmonton since we could stay with Rebekah and Nick.
Two balloon flights a day are scheduled in Edmonton during the six months from May through October one flight in the morning and one flight in the evening. We booked at least once in the fall of 2007 and had the flight cancelled and then carried the flight coupon over to 2008.
The first 2008 booking we made was in May and I took a lay-off from the refinery shutdown job and we headed to Edmonton with great expectations. Ten bookings or so later we finally flew on October 3,2008. On average, we learned, about 50% of flights happen with a higher percentage of morning flights than evening. After the first few cancellations we hurt our odds by booking evening flights. This was done so the commitment to the scheduled flight was only a trip to Lloydminster and a phone call to see if we had to carry on to Edmonton. Only a day trip wasted and not an overnight, 1100 kilometer pilgrimage to adverse weather conditions.
So we show up at McDonald's and meet in the parking lot. We visit with the balloon pilot, the chase crew and the other five passengers. The pilot releases a helium balloon and watches what it does as it ascends. We learn that this is the second attempt for three of the others and that the previous time they had made it as far as the helium balloon release and the flight was cancelled from the way the winds handled the sacrificial party balloon. One other woman on their cancelled flight had received her flight as a seventieth birthday present - she was seventy-four when she flew this year!
Our trial balloon did okay. We all got in the van and headed down into the river valley. One passenger exposed herself to a bit of ribbing by asking about the champagne. She learned that "that comes after the flight."
We arrived in a city park which is used for balloon departures and proceeded to remove the gear from the trailer and help with assembly and inflation. Once the balloon is stretched out it is inflated with gas engine-driven fans. When it has ballooned out, so to speak, the propane burner is ignited and the hot air fills the balloon and, being lighter than the surrounding air causes the balloon to rise up.
That small black blob you see holding the mouth of the balloon open to the flames is me. I was wearing my fire retardant hoody, but that is a personal quirk not mandated PPE for a balloon ride.
The balloon rises and the connected basket is moved from its side to an upright position the pilot and passengers get in, in that order, of course.Another trial balloon is released to checkout wind currents at higher levels and the gas burner is cranked up and we depart.
As the launch preparations were fairly advanced a group showed up and began readying a ReMax balloon for departure. It was smaller than the one we were one. My tiny MBA mind did a quick calc and decided that one less crew member and no trailer needed and the cost of a smaller balloon didn't compensate for the smaller passenger load and that they must rely on advertising to supplement their income. Even with the larger balloon we were on this looks to be a business that can provide a modest income and a superior life style not material wealth.
We drifted with the wind up the valley and across the river startling a flock of geese into flight. A perfect day for a flight. The leaves had turned their fall colours and had not yet dropped.
We passed over the University of Alberta and picked out the landmarks we knew from our visits to Rebekah there. Then we travelled southeast over the residential area, picking out landmarks like the school my Dad went to as a child before his Dad's work took them all to Vancouver and Sharon Chapel where Nick and Rebekah attend church.
Once you are airborne the burner is only used intermittently to maintain or increase altitude. When the burner is not on the flight is remarkably silent. We were able to converse with the group of students playing tennis in the school yard as we passed over and to clearly hear the dogs going nuts barking at the strange object passing over their yards. As we drifted along we also got a good perspective on how tidy (or not) people keep their yards and roofs. There were a few pretty large skylights but no salacious activities beneath them. We would have looked away if there had been. I am sure we would have.
Eventually we passed over the residential area and across into the more commercial/industrial area enjoying the smell of the plywood factory and the view of the RV dealership where we bought our home on wheels. A bit more southeastly drifting and I called Rebekah at work and she could see us from her office window, but couldn't quite make out all of us waving.
Up to this point the ReMax balloon had been following in our path, but we changed altitude to catch a wind current previously indicated by the trial balloons and headed more southerly. Conversing with the chase crew the pilot decided to set down in a school playground. Which he did. We all braced ourselves in the wicker basket and enjoyed a relatively soft landing. One class of the school kids came out with their teacher to see what was happening. The pilot beckoned them close and told them a bit about ballooning and then hit the burners briefly. The noise and flame elicited a few startled responses from the kids, but they adapted pretty quickly.
Then it was time to put the balloon in its bag and load everything back on the trailer. Before returning us to our vehicles we stopped at a quiet parking lot and the crew served champagne and/or orange juice while the pilot entertained us with stories about the history of ballooning. Check out the links for more on this, but two highlights were the source of the term pilot which is derived from the last name of one of the early balloonists and the still present custom of paying farmers for landing in their field with a bottle of champagne.
Then we returned to the McDonald's parking lot from our much anticipated two hour adventure.