May 5, 2008

Up, Up And...

...not so away. More like a repeated failure to launch.

That's SkyBird, the hot air balloon that I groundcrew for. Again.

If you've read the blog for, oh, two or more years you might remember me talking about SkyBird and David her pilot and Jim the Ground Crew Chief. I'm sure I waxed rhapsodic about what a wonderful thing it is to be up in a balloon, how the envelope above you looks like you're staring up into a massive three-dimensional stained glass window, how your heart leaps when the the gondola first slips away from the earth with the lightest nudge. I even remember being warned in my comments at the time that the pilot/owner would likely take full and ruthless advantage of me, working me for nothing, and I defended my choice by saying, not once but repeatedly, that working with these two men was like being a part of a perfectly-functioning machine and for me being around this sort of excellence was by far payment enough.

Well, after four or five outings with the crew I suddenly stopped getting calls from the pilot asking if I could come help. No more text messages with times and meeting places. Nothing. Being a good Southern boy I didn't press the issue, didn't call David up making a big stir. I assumed something had happened, thought perhaps I'd offended somehow and let it drop.

Two years passed, with me wondering only occasionally what had happened, lamenting the loss of those early Saturday mornings. Once in a while I'd miss being up and around just before dawn, helping Jim unload the wicker gondola from the trailer. Only once in a while would I think about hauling the big blue canvas bag containing the envelope out, the rustling sound the blue and orange nylon material made as it slithered from it's bag onto the ground. How it would look, a wrinkled blue and orange twisted thing lying across the dew-damp grass. What it looked like to stare into the half-inflated envelope, like staring into a fantasy world rendered in warm light and dragon's exhalation.

Only once in a great while would I fondly remember the first explosive roar of the butane burner firing a ten-foot long jet of blue-orange flame up into the envelope's maw.

Not to mention the moment the envelope finally clears the ground, how it seems to hold still for a moment, still tied to the earth before it suddenly leaps in slow-motion into an upright position over the gondola.

Yeah, I only thought about it once in a while.

Then it happened. One afternoon the phone rang. It was David, wanting to know if I wanted to go crewing. I flipped out, completely. A few back and forth missed calls later and I finally figured out what had happened: long story short, a repairwoman who failed to mention she'd let her licensure lapse resulted in some 50+ balloons in a four state area (including SkyBird here in LA) being grounded until they all could be recertified. Red tape, FAA run-arounds and so forth stopped the business dead in it's tracks while it could all be sorted out.

But now? Now she's airborne again. Well, at least I think so.

I missed the relaunch. Last weekend we tried again. Saturday morning I was up at 5, bustling around, showering, dressing. At 5:30 the call came--too foggy to lift, rescheduled until that evening.

Thirty seven days later that evening finally arrived and found me standing with a fair-sized group of folks on a grass landing strip that dated back to pre-WWII days. The gondola was unloaded and positioned, the envelope's mooring cables and D-rings pulled out of the bag and attached, the burner put in place and...we waited. The wind, you see, was not cooperating, and when you lift off in a huge nylon envelope that's at the mercy of the wind you make sure you have some measure of safety, which we didn't.

Two hours passed, the wind never let up, so we quietly packed up again, and I've yet to see SkyBird go flying. Quite frankly it's KILLING ME!

So, I sit and I hope and I wait. I wait for that call telling me to be up bright and early one weekend morning, meet at the usual place. I wait for the careful, patient voice of David, the retired Air Force pilot as he calls out measurements of wind speed and direction, the careful charting of a likely course. I wait for the unpacking and the painstaking assembly. The click of D-rings and the soft rattle of the gondola being positioned in the still morning air. I hunger for the soft crackle of radio checks, both the main and the backup. The anticipation roiling around me, moored to the ground by David's dour, certain movements. The first red roar of burning butane.

I've yet to see her in the air again. So I wait, impatiently, for SkyBird to hang over my head like some wonderfully silent, hugely improbable thing, half of the earth and half of the air.


Rayne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rayne said...

That day will come. It's spring, yet. Spring skies are iffy and mixed, and slightly cantankerous, like a two year old's moods. But, there will be a bright blue, perfect day soon, there has to be, and you will be aloft in SkyBird floating above the earth and it will be wonderful.
(I had to delete my first post. Way too many grammatical mistakes. Not that this version would be making Mrs. Putnum smile either.)

Nancy Dancehall said...

Something tells me next weekend. :-)

Clowncar said...

That last line is wonderful: "some wonderfully silent, hugely improbable thing, half of the earth and half of the air." But I'm guessing you knew that.

A friend once sent me a picture of a balloon festival just before dawn - the still dark field lit up by all those butane burners. Lovely.

Nice post. Good luck getting airborne again.

Bob said...

on my list of things to do - go ballooning. it must be wonderful.

Irrelephant said...

I actually made sense of the first comment, Rayne! You didn't so badly do.

Actually it won't be until the 17th, Nancy. David's going camping next weekend (how DARE he!) but that'll give me time to get the mountain of household chores done so I don't feel so guilty going out.

It's an extraordinary thing indeed, CC. The fun part of balloon festivals is that ANYONE can take an excellent photograph--it's just about impossible to screw up a photo of a balloon. And thank you for the kind words. Honestly I still don't always know when a particular line or paragraph is going to catch the way I hope it will. All part of my writing charm, I guess. *lol*

Bob, you really need to go for it! It's not very expensive, it's different from any other way to fly (it's dead silent for most of the trip, all except the burner firing occasionally) and you don't feel the wind, since you're traveling more or less at exactly it's speed. You don't get up real crazy high in the air but you are far up enough that things start to spread out before you. Highly recommended!