What I Learned in a Hot Air Balloon

Riding in a hot air balloon wasn’t exactly on my bucket list, but I’ve always liked the idea of maybe trying it someday. Someday recently happened when a friend invited me and Peter to join her and her husband on a ride to celebrate her birthday. Accepting the invitation came with some hesitancy… it is flying in a wicker basket powered by open flames… Hmmm. But we quickly decided to go for it.

I’m glad to have had the experience. Will I go back up again? Maybe. If a good opportunity comes up. It’s pricey to be a regular hobby, and there were a few things that weren’t super fun. After a week or so of reflection, here are some takeaways from my adventure in hot air ballooning.

You don’t know where you’ll launch

We met our balloonist at a parking lot where he sent up some helium balloons to check the wind and explained that he’d be driving us to the launch site, once they decided the best spot for the current conditions. He drove us to a church parking lot, sent up another balloon, then decided to switch to a different site. From what I understood, we had a good wind and not a lot of weight among us, so we were switching to a site that would give us more options for a landing site. But I didn’t pay much attention, since it wasn’t my decision. I was just along for the ride and starting to like how that felt.

Floating feels like standing still

One of our friends described hot air balloon flight as “standing still while the world moves around you.” That sounds a bit odd, until you go up and experience it for yourself. In a hot air balloon, you are moving in the air current. There’s no breeze or sense of being “blown” along. It really did feel like we were standing still, except the scenery was changing and objects/people/animals on the ground would be larger or smaller depending on our height. The sunset was on our friends’ side of the basket when we started, then on ours, and eventually back on theirs, which was the only way we knew the balloon was turning.

Lower air is slower air

When we first launched, we went up to about 400 feet and were moving at 8 mph. Our balloonist wanted to slow us down, so he dropped us to a height where we were skimming just above the treetops. That was really lovely, since we could appreciate the views of the tree branches below and the mountains in the distance. We spied hawks flying nearby, as well as deer, cows, and waving kids. Before this, I hadn’t considered how the lower air has a slower current. It was fascinating to pay attention to the subtle shift when we changed heights.

Fire is HOT and loud

Standing close to a bonfire or fireplace provides a cozy, steady warmth. Standing just below a giant blowtorch in a hot air balloon is not so pleasant. The fire isn’t on all the time. It comes in loud, searingly hot bursts as needed. The shorter pulls aren’t too bad, but the more sustained burns were uncomfortably hot, and I had to cover my ears a couple of times. The heat may have been more welcome in colder weather, but in late August it was a bit much.

fire in a hot air balloon

You don’t know where, or how, you’ll land

Once you launch, a chase team follows from below, staying in radio contact. No one knows where you will land until you see where the wind takes you. That’s the sort of thing I’d expect to bother me, but I found it didn’t really matter. In the air, it was too late to second-guess where or how we would land. We were going to end up on the ground one way or another. The balloonist dropped us down to skim along a cornfield, trying to slow us into a gentle glide to the ground. Unfortunately, the wind wasn’t having that. We had to drop more quickly at the end, causing a rather bumpy landing. But I’ve been told it isn’t always like that and you have to do your best given the wind conditions, which I think is a pretty good lesson for life. Sometimes you have to hang on and tumble through the rough patches.

Balloonists toast the end of a flight

The final thing I learned on my hot air balloon ride: it’s traditional to toast the end of the flight. Apparently, that goes back into the first hot air balloon flight in the 1780s. There’s a toast to celebrate the flight, and a bottle of champagne may also be given to the owner of the field where you landed. It’s a lovely way to appreciate the success of the flight and the safety of being back on solid ground!

Overall, it was a fun adventure! You can see a few more pictures of our hot air balloon ride on this Facebook post. Or listen to the story it inspired on my Freely Written podcast, episode 69: Up, Up, and Away.

Sunset view from a hot air balloon
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1 year ago

What a great retelling of our adventure and the hobby. This was my fourth flight and the first time the launch site wasn’t predetermined. I’m guessing it had to do with our proximity to the mountains and viable landing locations. So glad you and Peter could join us. So much better to share the experience with friends.

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