Riding the Wind

It's beautiful to be an aeronaut

June 1, 2003

Imagine floating silently with the wind, looking down on a 360-degree view of the surrounding scenery. The silence is broken every 45 seconds or so by a quick "whoosh" of the propane burner as you gracefully hang above the Earth, suspended in space, floating like a cloud.

With the deadline for my flight review approaching, I decided to fulfill a dream and learn to fly hot air balloons. After much research, I enrolled in Balloon Excelsior's Part 141 school located in Oakland, California. The school's founder and chief instructor, Brent Stockwell, is a living encyclopedia of balloon knowledge and experience. Stockwell started ballooning in 1966 and has logged 4,000 hours in balloons. In addition to Stockwell, I had the pleasure of flying with Gloria Navarrette, Balloon Excelsior's assistant chief flight instructor. She, too, is a superb instructor and extremely knowledgeable. Stockwell sent me the textbook he authored, How to Fly a Balloon, to help me prepare for my lessons. With that, I reserved a flight from my home in Florida to California.

Balloon Excelsior

Balloon Excelsior has been training students since 1971. It was the first FAA-approved balloon flight school in the country. Training is offered for a private certificate in eight hours of flight and 10 hours of ground school ($1,800 to $2,750). A commercial certificate is offered in 10 hours of flight and 20 hours of ground training ($2,300 to $3,500).

For more information, call 510/261-4222 or visit the Web site ( www.hot-airballoons.com/excelsior/).

While a balloon is an aircraft according to the FAA, it is different from what most of us think of when we think of aircraft. One of the obvious differences between fixed-wing flying and ballooning is that in a balloon you do not know where you are going to land. It is truly an adventure to launch into the sky with only a general notion of where you will return to Earth.

Do not let the "lighter than air" nomenclature fool you. A balloon can be 70 feet tall and weigh six tons (counting the weight of the air inside the envelope — envelope being the proper name for the fabric or "balloon" part of the balloon). This mass leads to enormous momentum. As a balloon pilot all you can do is make the balloon ascend (by adding heat) or make it descend (by removing heat). Very simple. However, you can perform either action all you want — the balloon does nothing for at least 10 seconds before it begins to respond. This time delay makes it easy to overcorrect, which, at best, results in your bouncing your way through the sky (not to mention your bounces on landing). At worst it can be very dangerous if you get "behind the balloon" and suddenly face an obstacle — such as power lines.

Ballooning is best done at dawn, when the winds are lightest and the air is coolest. For this reason every day's lesson began at 4 a.m. I dragged myself out of bed, dressed, ate, and waited for Stockwell. After an hour's drive east we arrived in the Central Valley of California at Tracy Municipal Airport. Tracy is ideally suited for ballooning; the airport is surrounded by a large expanse of central California topography with many wide, flat fields perfect for balloon landings. The hills to the west provide an excellent "box" and the mountains to the east offer a magnificent scenic backdrop.

Following Stockwell's instruction, I attach the basket to the cables from ..the envelope, connect the teather, check the propane connections, verify that the "top" had been put back in the envelope, and stretch the envelope out on the ground. Next, two people hold the mouth, or bottom, of the envelope open. A fan is started to blow cold air into the envelope. As the envelope slowly fills with cold air, Stockwell shows me how to inspect the envelope, both outside and inside.

Once the balloon is about two-thirds full of cold air it is time to start the burners. Each burner puts out 11 million BTUs of heat. You must aim the flame right up into the center of the balloon?you'll have real trouble keeping a balloon crew if you set one of them on fire. More likely, though, if you aren't careful you'll burn a hole in the envelope, run up a large repair bill, and generally look foolish. I met one experienced pilot during my training who, during her morning inflation, set her hair on fire. She didn't think anyone had noticed her mistake. However, she had white hair and the burned, yellow, crispy bits on top of her head really stood out.

As the envelope heats up, it rises and the basket starts to tip up and rise with it. The trick is to climb in the basket, one leg at a time, keep the burner pointed toward the center of the mouth, and keep "burning," all while everything is moving. The envelope breathes in and out during inflation like a living being; I am admonished to add heat by activating the burner only while the envelope is expanding and breathing out. The pilot must always be in the basket when it is vertical so you don't have any unmanned balloon launchings.

Once the envelope is vertical, the passengers enter the balloon and final checks are made. The balloon is brought to "neutral buoyancy"; then, one more burn and the balloon silently leaves the ground. Takeoffs in a balloon are really magical. One second you are on the ground. The next, you are silently rising into the sky, saying goodbye to your crew.

After all the effort of assembly and inflation, flying a balloon isn't hard. Once you get used to the lag in response time it is easy to maintain level flight, climb, and descend. That's all a balloon does. No stalls, no slow flight, no steep turns to contend with. We float around for about two hours as I practice these maneuvers.

Time for my first landing. The plan is to simply allow the balloon to cool off and start to descend when a landing field is within reach. As you descend, you gradually "level off" with short burns and touch down like a feather. At 500 feet agl you can descend as fast as 500 fpm; at 400 feet agl, you can descend at 400 fpm; and so on, until your rate of descent reaches zero as you gently kiss the field.

So much for theory. Pow! We smash into the field so hard I'm sure we leave a crater. The envelope descends and almost hits us in the head. Then, it rebounds up and, wow, we take off again! Up about five feet in the air, we swing around underneath the envelope, head down again, and pow! Eventually, we come to a stop. Stockwell lies and says, "That was pretty good."

For my second lesson I fly with Navarrette. We take off and climb to 5,000 feet agl. A mile above the ground, standing in a little basket — now that is high! Once at altitude it is time to practice a "terminal descent." If the heater fails and will not relight, the balloon starts to descend — with increasing speed. Eventually, the envelope acts as a parachute and terminal velocity is reached. The flight manual predicts a terminal velocity of 1,300 fpm. Navarrette assures me that this is a survivable speed at which to impact the Earth — but upon questioning she agrees that you'd probably spend time in the hospital afterward.

The terminal descent is like being in a runaway elevator. I survey the burners' pilot lights carefully as the wind of our descent roars upward through the basket. I am very happy when Navarrette gives the nod to activate the burners. After successfully arresting the terminal descent it is time for more maneuvering practice. As we do this, the wind picks up — time for my first windy landing.

The goal in a windy landing is to descend as low as possible and skim along before touchdown. The wind is typically lighter at ground level than at altitude and this allows you to slow down. Some balloonists go so far as to let the basket drag through the tops of trees to "scrub off" speed. Since a wind landing may result in the basket tipping over upon touchdown you must turn the propane off while still in flight. This reduces the risk of fire, as accidentally setting off the burner in a hard landing could set the envelope, the ground, or you on fire. I quickly shut all the valves off; a few seconds later we touch down.

The basket tips over and we start getting dragged downwind through the field. "Stay in the basket, stay in the basket," Navarrette is yelling. I've never been dragged by wild horses and this is as close as I want to get. It is quite exhilarating. We both lunge for the red rip line as we tumble over each other, sliding sideways down the field. As we pull the rip line the hot air quickly escapes through the top of the envelope and the wind whistles through what is now in essence a hollow tube. We come to a stop, shaken but no worse for wear.

As my training progresses my preflights get better and my landings get softer. I become adept at "steering" the balloon. By varying altitude you can take advantage of differing wind directions and speeds to steer the balloon. It is astonishing that an altitude difference of only 200 feet can result in a direction difference of 45 degrees. Flying a balloon with precision reminds me of playing chess. It requires heavy concentration and planning many moves in advance. Smoke, flags, and dust are all good indicators of the wind at ground level. Dropping a tissue (or spitting) and watching it descend provides a clue to the wind direction below. Keeping very close notice of the balloon's direction during ascent or descent offers good clues about the wind. When other balloons are in the air with you the job of flying is much easier as they are perfect wind vanes.

Soon, the time comes for my first solo. Like an airplane, the balloon takes off much faster without the weight of the instructor. In fact, it is so buoyant that it is hard to land — my efforts at leveling off just prior to touchdown keep resulting in a climb instead. My first solo is on a Saturday; since it is the weekend, five other balloons are in the sky with me. This makes my job of getting my balloon to go where I want to go much easier; when I find a direction I want to fly I merely adjust my altitude to that of another balloon headed in that same direction. Eventually, I bring my balloon gently to Earth. My first perfect landing.

The morning of my checkride arrives. Since the FAA commercial balloon rating comes with instructor privileges I have to give a "lesson" to my "crew" on how to assemble, preflight, and inflate the balloon system. Stockwell (the FAA examiner) climbs in the basket and off we go.

At 200 feet agl Stockwell fails the burner. I grab the welding striker and relight the pilot light, barely missing a beat. We ascend to 2,500 feet. Stockwell has me do the various maneuvers required in the practical test standards. After an hour it is time for a landing.

I spot a hay field two miles to the southeast. By precisely varying altitude within a 100-foot band, I am able to zigzag my way toward this field. To keep tabs on the wind direction and velocity below me I spit over the basket (in my excitement I have forgotten my tissues). At 100 feet agl the wind turns in the opposite direction to my course at 1,500 feet agl. I decide to fly beyond the field, descend to 100 feet agl, and fly back into the field to land.

I position myself past the field and begin a fast descent. Unfortunately, I don't descend fast enough; the balloon reverses direction and picks up speed at a rapid rate. I am going to overshoot the field so I abort the landing and climb back up to altitude.

Just as a missed approach or go-around in a fixed-wing aircraft increases a pilot's stress level, so too does my inability to land the balloon add to mine. I announce to Stockwell that I do not believe I can land in the hay field. He says, "Oh, Tom, you give up too easily. Set your goals and stick with them." Stockwell is correct; flying a balloon with precision requires patience. Still, I think it's time to find a better field. I spot a larger dirt field about two miles away. I point out a dirt road bisecting the field and say that I will land in the middle of that road.

As before, I fly well past the landing site. This time, I begin a faster descent. At 400 feet agl I reach up to do a burn to slow our descent and hear only the "hiss" of unlit propane. Stockwell has failed the burner again. With no time to relight the pilot light, I light the burner directly off the main blast valve with the welding striker. Success!

In the excitement I overcorrect; I've risen about 50 feet in altitude and am now going to overshoot my target again. I grab the vent line, haul the vent wide open to let hot air out of the envelope, and yell out the prelanding mantra: "Stand in the back of the basket, face the direction of travel, feet and knees together, bend at the knees, hold on in two places, stay inside the basket." We come down fast; there is no time to arrest the rate of descent. Kapow! We bounce up about five feet; I redeploy the vent. We contact the Earth again, but this time we stay planted. I miss the center of my target landing spot by two feet.

The checkride isn't over yet. Packing up the balloon properly is no easy feat, at least when you are as mechanically challenged as I am, and it is part of the practical test standards. As I pack up the balloon Navarrette looks at me and gives me the "thumbs up" sign. Stockwell doesn't say a word. As we drive off, he utters his first words. "That was not a hard landing," he says. "That was merely a firm landing." That's all he has to say. I ask him if I passed. He pauses, and says, "Well, you didn't scare me too bad."

All that stands between me and my rating now is a three-hour oral exam. After the practical flight test, the oral exam is a breeze.

Learning to fly a balloon is one of the greatest challenges I have faced in my life; but like many challenges the rewards have proven more than worth the effort. As I silently float over the Florida landscape as dawn breaks over the Atlantic Ocean in the far distance, I always hear the faint verse of Up, Up, and Away in My Beautiful Balloon and am proud to be one of the few pilots who can call themselves an aeronaut.

Thomas W. Tripp, AOPA 13465000, of Tequesta, Florida, is a financial analyst who has logged more than 650 hours in 24 years of flying.