Jun 4, 2008

Crown Man

I keep wanting to make that into Soundgarden's "Spoon Man" but can't, somehow.

On this the anniversary of the Montgolfier's flight in their marvelous hot air balloon (look it up, it's worthwhile, and the envelope looks like a Fabrege' egg) I guess it's time to trot out my ballooning stories again. Finally. The careful interaction of disparate entities moving toward a common goal--flight. I've had the marvelous good fortune to be out with David and Skybird twice now in two weeks*, and both times have been as good as the first. My responsibilities, however, have grown.

When I first started crewing with David I felt like an outsider, which I was. I was trying to help two men who had been working together for over 18 years. I may as well have tried to stand in for George Burns with Gracie Allen. Slowly, though, I learned and grew and figured it out.

David is a former Air Force pilot, you see. In his calm, methodical head he has the checklists and every time he even thinks about flying that balloon he goes over them without skipping, without hurrying. It's the same pattern every time, and that's how mistakes are minimized. Me, I'm starting to fit into that pattern, having learned how things go. Now I can forsee the next step, usually, and can be ready for it.

It's an incredible feeling.

Two weekends ago I stepped way up, way past my usual "strong back weak mind" position. Jim wasn't able to be there and so that put me as crown man AND as the driver of the chase truck. Heady stuff indeed, trying to be where a hot air balloon is going to land. Last weekend Jim was back but something had changed in the pattern. I fit in it now. I was crown man, giving Jim's hip (now eight years overdue for replacement surgery) a much needed break. I know how to burp the envelope (which is as enthralling to watch as it is to imagine) and I know how to set the top (a fifteen-foot circle of nylon that closes the top of the envelope off) and I know now not to wrap the crown rope around my hand because there are days when that envelope will leap upright and that rope will travel FAST. Friction isn't always our friend.

We had a late start last Saturday morning--the fog refused to burn or blow away and I was about to despair that we'd not be launching but time came and the procedure started. The envelope was carefully unfurled across the grass. The fan with it's airplane propeller blade was aligned alongside the gondola where it sat on it's side. The crown rope was handed to me and I was told to "get." The envelope furled and bumbled and wobbled and filled until it was standing proudly in the morning light, blue and orange nylon holding back air in excess of 210 degrees.

The moment came. Three of us were leaning on the padded edges of the gondola. David said, quietly, "Weight off." We each stood, holding our breaths it seemed. The basket stayed put. "Weight on." We leaned on the deep blue suede leather trim and he fired the ten foot gout of pale blue flame into the envelope for a breathlessly slow three count. A glance at the temperature gauge and again, quietly: "Weight off."

This time it was just right. The basket stirred like a living thing coming out of sleep and began to rise into the blue morning sky. My own ritual now--I patted David on the back and said "Safe flight" and we ground-bound ones hustled to load fan and gloves and such back in the trailer to commence the chase sequence. Radios squawked, reports of fuel consumption came to us scratchily in the truck and Jim and I peered at the map, trying to guesstimate where our pilot might go, what spot he might pick to land in, and how we could best beat him there to beg permission from some kind landowner.

The flight came to it's inevitable end hovering over an empty field. I jumped out of the truck and scaled the welded post fence to meet the basket and it's crew, remembering last weekend's ignoble tip and fall but as I bounded across the uneven briars and grass David called out "Wait!" I got within eight or so feet of the basket and watched as he lowered his cargo and craft so slowly, so perfectly down that the passengers didn't realise they'd landed. It astounded me that this contraption that weighs almost a thousand pounds all told could alight in the dewy grass with all the gentleness of a tadpole coming to rest on the bottom of a pond. I know I stood there like a kid watching a magic trick unfurl because I saw my smile echoed in David's.

The landowners arrived shortly thereafter, alerted by the roar of the propane torch and David left the envelope inflated, not hot enough to escape again but just enough to keep it full and round and lovely. The consummate showman, he spent time telling them briefly about it (88,000 cubic feet of air, four propane tanks, a "sport" model) and asking and receiving gracious permission to use any part of the landowner's 4000 acres for takeoff or landing.

The Montgolfier's never had the benefit of a chase crew but they did bring champagne with them to soothe irate manor lords. We celebrated another safe flight as we always do--with champagne and the only prayer** I will say anymore.

* Vulgar Wizard was manning the camera this time, having sprung some important muscle in her back the previous flight. Here's her breathtaking Flickr set.

**The Balloonist's Prayer

The winds have welcomed you with softness.
The sun has blessed you with his warm hands.
You have flown so high and so well
that God joined you in laughter
and set you gently back into
the loving arms of Mother Earth.

The author of the Balloonist's Prayer is unknown, but it is believed to have been adapted from an old Irish sailors' prayer.


meno said...

Those pictures are awesome. I love the one where you can see the two people through the balloon material.

Someday....someday....i wanna go too.

Irrelephant said...

That's VW for ya--she's got a tremendous eye for photography and the sensibility to be where the photos are going to be.

You really really ought to. The price is very cheap and the experience will stay with you for always. Heck, you're all about volunteering your time--find out if there's a local pilot and volunteer your time. It's a marvelous way to see how it all comes together, so to speak.

Gordo said...

I remembering being out camping somewhere with the family when I was teenager and hearing that distinctive roar come floating across the field. We went looking and out popped three balloons from behind the trees. I'm absolutely mesmerized by these things. Just the thought of basically being at the mercy of the wind and floating along on the breeze is so appealing. One of these days. :-D

You really should wear a hat in the Louisiana sunshine too, my friend.

Mona Buonanotte said...

You had me at "Soundgarden".

Congrats on being Crown Man! Damn pyramids in Mexico made me liable to vertigo if'n I went up in a balloon, but I'd still like to try! You write like a romantic, Irr!

Merelyme said...

i don't think i would ever go up into a balloon because i am terrified of heights. it does sound romantic though if i weren't peeing my pants.

Irrelephant said...

Gordo, they're so elegant and so...unlikely! And honestly I've not ventured out in the sun without some sort of hat for the past dozen years but have been forgetting to pack something when I go ballooning. The bike always confuses me. *lol* Helmet = being outside in a hat.

Just for you, Mona. *wink* You know you reallllly need to go up in one. They're so stable, and since you're traveling at the same speed as the wind the sensation of motion is almost negligible. It's quiet and so elegant. You really oughta!

Merelyme, you really don't go that high, either! And you've got a waist-high (on me) basket around you, plus the close company of your pilot (those baskets are small!) so the fear factor is very low!

Clowncar said...

Marvelous detail in that post, Irr. The roar of the propane, burping the envelope, that thrilling chase and gentle landing. Felt like I was along for the ride. Congrats on being promoted from the strong back, weak mind grunt work.