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Flying Carpet

Watch Out For The Fountain

Kaleidoscopic dragons awakened all around us-gargantuan creatures inhaling and rising from the earth, their fiery breathing filling the air.

I gripped our basket as pilot Mary Woodhouse activated our own burner in harmony with those of our neighbors. Three of us perched precariously in the tiny woven gondola that barely reached our hips. A colorful bag of hot air rose gracefully above our heads, then slowly coaxed us from the ground. With us rose other balloons-a great herd of beasts struggling from rest. Slowly, we drifted toward the pond adjacent to our takeoff site.

"We'll skim the water," said Woodhouse, "just for the sport of it...."

It seemed so alien - our aircraft drifting slowly over a body of water at an altitude of only inches, and, in fact, descending to touch the surface. And descending, and descending...

With water filtering through our basket, I wondered if I should've worn other shoes. I hadn't anticipated that a balloon flight would wet the new ones I was wearing. As the water rose over the top of my shoelaces, I noted a look of determination on Woodhouse's face; her relaxed touch changed to a firm grip as she activated the burner. The water climbed to our ankles as we slogged into the pond, defying the best efforts of the burner and our collective will to rise.

Suddenly the murmur of spectators became a roar, with the crowd on shore shouting and pointing at us. "Look out!" came their cries. "The Fountain!"

I quickly realized that more than our impending dunking was attracting attention. Although we'd finally begun rising skyward, directly ahead in our path lay "The Fountain."

This particular fountain is no run-of-the-mill peeing statue. Arguably the tallest in the world, the huge spout pumps vertically some 640 feet aloft. Seriously, this fountain is so big that it's a VFR reporting point for Phoenix Class B airspace, and by the time I'd turned around to see what all those fingers were pointing at, we were headed directly for it at the grand elevation of five feet.

The crowd's roar grew deafening, then fell dead silent as all eyes focused on our hapless craft; although we were now rapidly rising, we'd clearly be unable to outclimb the water.

At the last moment of this slow-motion crisis, our balloon drifted ever so slightly to the right, skimming closely enough for a gentle spray to cool our faces as the craft rose briskly to join its heaving and sighing brethren.

"Wonder why they don't turn that fountain off for the ascension," said Woodhouse, in what seemed the understatement of the year. "Didn't mean to skim quite that low either." A hint of a smile crossed her face.

(The following year a balloon did indeed drift into the forceful waters of The Fountain. Ignominiously deflated, it dumped its passengers into the reclaimed effluent of Fountain Lake. Only ego-based injuries resulted.)

Drifting low and silently above homes and desert, we could now absorb the majesty of balloon flight - regally receiving the waves of smiling spectators watching from their backyards. Voices joined us eerily from unseen conversations below.

We drifted slowly southward, then southwest. "Good thing we're going in this direction," observed Woodhouse. "Northeast is too rugged for chase vehicles to get us out. And we avoid Phoenix because of air traffic and lack of landing sites."

Ours was a distance race, to see who could travel the farthest from the starting point. "I don't care about winning," said Woodhouse, "we'll just stay low and enjoy the ride."

Now over open desert, we observed deer and coyotes fleeing our great shadow, their progress through the brush clearly audible. Our reverie was broken by Woodhouse's handheld radio.

"Sheriff's deputy just came by," said a staticky voice from our ground crew. "Told us the Salt River Tribe has denied permission to land on their reservation. I guess the race organizers forgot to ask ahead of time."

"Oh goody," said Woodhouse. "Where is it?"

"This is all reservation," I observed, with a sweep of the hand.

Woodhouse cheered us with tales of hapless aeronauts greeted by guns, jail, and fines for landing on valuable crops, in exclusive neighborhoods, and of course, on Indian reservations.

To escape visions of a night in a tribal jail, we concentrated on the surrealistic views of hue-saturated balloons dancing across brown desert and green fields.

Ultimately Woodhouse put down on the reservation anyway, coordinating with our chase crew to minimize waiting time on the ground. We dragged and bumped to a stop in a field and escaped, drawing no more attention than the watchful excitement of some nearby children.

My hour-and-a-half initiation into the mystical world of hot-air ballooning was over. Low and silent passage over the ground had granted perceptions that pass one by in an airplane-smelling the smells, hearing the sounds, and sensing the lives of those below. New perspectives of flight had been revealed at a groundspeed of 10 knots.

After refueling with propane at a nearby gas station, we returned to Fountain Park to indulge in the traditional celebratory brunch and dousing of first-flight neophytes with champagne. With bubbly dripping from my nose, I pondered the new excitement brought to me this day for the unceasingly fascinating act of flying.

Greg Brown

Greg Brown

Greg Brown is an aviation author, photographer, and former National Flight Instructor of the Year.

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