21 July 2010

Hot Air balloon flight in Asheville...

I've been meaning to do this for quite a while now, and this year the opportunity finally arose!

For several mornings, I heard the unmistakable sound of a hot-air balloon burner firing in the distance at Tina's place, and one morning where we were on the road earlier than usual, we caught sight of the balloon flying low over the city.

It didn't take Tina very long to find the contact details of the pilot/owner, and we booked our flight.

We met before sunrise in town, to release a helium balloon in order to check the wind direction. That done, we took a drive towards Weaverville, to park in a big flat field, next to the local Mall Wart. Another two helium balloons were released, which showed there was quite a wind direction change a few hundred feet above ground level.

The fly decision is made, and the basket and the balloon were taken out and laid on the ground, to start inflation.

At first, a big petrol engine driven fan gets used to almost fully inflate the envelope on the ground. The pilot even stepped inside the balloon to check that all was proceeding as normal...

Then the first burn takes place. The basket is laying sideways on the ground, the flame shoots straight into the balloon opening, and after a while the balloon starts rising, lifting the basket upright.

The events then start unfolding quickly, with the four passengers climbing into the basket one by one, and take off is imminent. The exact moment of take off is hardly perceptible, but when we look down, we can clearly see that we've left the ground. We are airborne!

The plan was to fly North, but when we look that way, we can see that a thick cloud layer hugs the ground, and that's not just a morning fog. The pilot decides to fly North for a few minutes, but then drops the altitude of the balloon to catch a Southbound draft that takes us back toward the take off point. We drifted a bit West during the maneuvers, so it's not possible to land back on the same spot. We continue to drift in a Southerly direction, and at one point it looks as if we're going to cross the Interstate Road. The West draft pushes us back, and we're on the West side of the road again.

We're flying very low, looking for a suitable landing spot. So low, in fact, that we touch the tops of a few pine trees, the camera dangling from ropes attached to the top of the balloon actually get snagged into the trees at one point.

We're getting low on gas. The last of the three gas bottles has to come on line as we make an attempt to land in the parking lot of a church. This is probably one of the last suitable spots, and we touch ground rather softly, glad to see that the following vehicle has joined us.

It was a great adventure, with a flight that did not take us very high, but lasted over 55 minutes and showed us some interesting sights...


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