Proficient Pilot: True confessions

Up, up, and away in a beautiful balloon

December 1, 2012

Barry Schiff

In 1959 I applied to the Federal Aviation Agency, predecessor to today’s Federal Aviation Administration, for a lighter-than-air rating limited to hot-air balloons. The rating was issued and has been on my pilot certificate ever since.

True Confession No. 1: Until recently I had never been in a balloon. I had never even been near one.

Such a statement obviously raises eyebrows but is true. I had been reviewing the requirements for various ratings and discovered a quirk in the regulations, one that I could not resist putting to the test. The next day found me waltzing into the local General Aviation District Office (GADO) and asking politely for a balloon rating. The inspector behind the counter was flummoxed. “How,” he wanted to know, “can you expect to qualify for a balloon rating when your application indicates that you have no experience in one?”

Being the smart ass that I was, I triumphantly pulled out the regulation showing that any commercial fixed-wing pilot wanting a balloon rating could have one simply for the asking. Unable to accept at face value what clearly was shown in black and white, the inspector retired to a glass cubicle and called the FAA’s regional counsel for an official interpretation of that regulation. I couldn’t hear the conversation, but I could see the inspector listening intently, shaking his head in disbelief, and finally hanging up.

“Looks like you’re right, kid. Stand by while I have a balloon rating added to your certificate.”

My new balloon rating became the talk of the airport and an easy way to win a bet. It wasn’t long before other pilots began applying for their balloon ratings. Our GADO became deluged with requests until an urgent order soon was handed down from FAA headquarters: “No more balloon ratings shall be issued to pilots without balloon experience” (or something to that effect).

Fortunately, those of us who beat the deadline were “grandfathered” and allowed to retain our ratings.

I always felt guilty about “being” a balloon pilot for more than 50 years without having been in a balloon. The reason that I had never flown a balloon is because…

True Confession No. 2: I have a fear of heights (acrophobia); there was no way that I would be willing to stand in basket suspended in midair and peer over its edge.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Based on my own informal survey taken over many years, it seems that a relatively large percentage of pilots suffer from a fear of heights. It’s an interesting fear in the sense that we are not affected by it when we fly. This might be because we cannot easily fall, be pushed out, or give in to an impulsive urge to jump. Stand on the edge of a building, though, and that fear can become debilitating. Given my own fear of heights (other than when flying), I had always suspected that I would be riddled with nervous anxiety during a balloon flight because I perceived that it would be so easy to fall, to be pushed out, or to yield to an impulsive urge to jump.

Fast forward to the recent AOPA Summit in Palm Springs, California, where there was an opportunity to purchase dual instruction in a hot-air balloon. Having felt somewhat fraudulent for brandishing a hot-air balloon rating throughout my career without ever having been in one, I decided it was time to log a balloon flight, acrophobia or no. I confess to sleeplessness the night before my scheduled flight.

As the sun appeared from behind the horizon and gave warmth to the Coachella Valley, my instructor, Dave Lynch, explained the process of laying out and preparing the envelope for flight. He demonstrated how a fan is used to blow ambient air into the envelope, known as a cold inflation. Hot air from the balloon’s burner is then used to complete the inflation. The 77,000-cubic-foot Firefly envelope gradually lifted from its horizontal position and began to rise from the desert floor like a slowly awakening beast.

We clambered into the basket, where Dave handed me a pair of gloves and taught me how to use the burner. Before I had time to worry about my fear of heights, the gentle giant was slowly floating into the calm sky. More blasts of hot air had us climbing to and then leveling off at a hundred or so feet agl. An occasional two- to three-second blast of the burner kept us there.

Fear of heights? I experienced none. I felt only inner peace and a sense of rapture. There also was a realization that it had been a monumental mistake to have deprived myself of such joy for so many years.

Barry Schiff has written more than 1,600 magazine articles and currently is writing his fourteenth book. Visit the author’s website.