Aug 31, 2008

Do All Good Lessons Hurt?

I'm starting to have serious concerns about my current lesson learning system. It seems that only the lessons that hurt me in some way really stay put from the moment of them being taught.

Case in point: this morning's Crew Flight day with SkyBird. See, our brave leader has a side-job wherein he does property damage inspections for insurance claims, and with the storm season upon us, SkyBird will be more or less grounded for the next month or two, at least into Fall. Being the thoughtful cuss he is, he decided that the last flight of the summer would go to his ground crew AND serve as an annual pilot instructor review for himself and a friend. This morning then we had a twofer setup with SkyBird and Bob flying _his_ balloon, Ski Lift. (There's actually a terrible pun hiding in there--Bob's last name, spelled as best I know how, is "Pulaski.")

We set up on a pipeline's clear cut area in the predawn, getting the bag holding the envelope and the gondola out of the trailer without trouble or event. I even got to show off my most current learning--standing at the 'narrow' end of the rectangle holding the burner's mounting frame and setting it on it's poles. Now, before I proceed, let me say this. In any profession there is a lexicon of special terms that have to be learned. It makes the process of DOING the profession easier since everyone is on the same page and it makes laypeople scratch their heads when you use funny words they don't understand. David is a retired military aviator, so everything we do uses a fair bit of military and civilian aviation patois. The ground isn't the ground, it's "the deck" as in "There's a strong easterly wind on the deck." During radio checks the proper response isn't "Yeah I can hear you" (at least not often) but "I read you five by five." It goes on.

My previous familiarity with military aviation gave me a little extra handhold on the terminology, but there are terms I'm not familiar with yet that David graciously bestows on me during our setups, like pearls cast before swine. Yesterday's aviation term occurred during the aforementioned pyrometer cable snaking. It was a little balled up and in danger of getting damaged, so David warned us to watch for "kinkles." Needless to say that stopped both Jim and myself in our tracks, as neither of us had heard that term used before. Apparently in pyrometer wire technical language a "kinkle" occurs midway between a wrinkle (not very dangerous) and a full kink (most undesirable.) So. My learning continues. Kinkles are to be avoided at all cost.

This morning gave me a lesson that I'll remember for a very long time. That is, if pain = excellent lesson retention holds true. It had never occurred to me that wind direction and the direction we lay the balloon out were inter-related. This morning proved to me that wind gusts, if there are any, and a few degree difference in setup direction can play a very decided role in easy balloon inflation. I guess this stands to reason--we're trying to blow up a balloon that holds 88,000 cubic feet of air and stands a number of stories tall--a strong wind can really wreck your day.

I was holding the crown line, unfortunately not by it's wicker handle but by the rope, there being a thick stand of trees behind me preventing me from backing up any more. As the burner began it's muted roar the envelope did it's fast stand-up and the rope began passing through my hands. I did my best to slow it's passage without burning my hands through the leather gloves, and then Nature stepped in with shock and surprise for me: an errant and rather strong gust.

The very soft, as of yet unfilled nylon envelope developed a huge dent in it's side like a sail catching wind (which is exactly what it was at that point) and began dragging me across the ground in exactly the same way I've seen Belle drag her toys behind her when she runs. Fast and dirty. All I could do was try my level best to plant my feet without being pulled over and watch as Jim gathered up handfuls of the material to keep it out of the ten foot torch from the burner. I yelled for Mrs. I to come help, and thank goodness she was there because at that point I hadn't a snowball's chance in Torment of keeping that envelope from going wherever the wind pushed it, and the other ground crew consisted of one man who was busy with Ski Lift's crown so he couldn't step in.

Vulgar Wizard, Jim, Richard AND Susie were trying to hold the gondola still and keep it from bashing into the trailer, Mrs. I and I were struggling with the crown line, and the wind wanted to play. We managed after a few violent minutes that seemed like an hour long to get her settled, and the outer edge of my right hand and my pinkie finger all promise to come up in some interesting bruise colours but it was worth it. It served as a very potent reminder of what can go wrong in just a moment.

So. The rest of the procedure went as planned, VW got to go up in Ski Lift with Bob and Ben (and Ben's video camera) while Richard and Susie went up with David in SkyBird. I figured patience would serve me, as they'd been crewing for a while without ever going up, and I was at least one paid flight up on them, so I got in the truck with Jim and Mrs. I and we chased.

Boy did we chase. That wind, you see, came back with a vengeance, and we had the long-way 'round to get back in line with the balloons. That's the other thing with being part of the chase crew--the balloon doesn't need to follow a road, and if there's no road for you to be on then you better find one. Thanks to an almost stalled condition over the Red River when they crossed we managed to catch up to SkyBird and passengers very fast in a beautiful flat open field with (blessing of blessings!) an unbarred gate. A fast recovery ensued, and my other painful lesson occurred.

Actually it occurred yesterday; today was my test.

You see, after the crown man hauls the envelope down and most of the air is out of the envelope there's still a lot of air in there, and the envelope is lying on the ground in sort of an oval shape that you can draw into a line by tugging on the straps, but there's still some air trapped in the folds. The next task is squeezing it (more aviation jargon for 'ya.) This is usually done by two or three people, but the lead person is the real doer. It's done just like it sounds--you stand beside the envelope, wrap your arms around it, draw it up to your waist or thereabouts and squeeze, working your way down the length of the balloon like you're trying to wring it out.

Which you are.

Now naturally there's a trick to it, and my teacher David The Tyrant decided to let the tyro (me) learn the hard way. We walked up to the envelope, he stepped into his customary first position and I stood behind him, my job being to keep the weight of the envelope off him. He got that damned "instruction forthcoming" grin under his precisely clipped military spec moustache and said, rather offhandedly, "Here, why don't YOU lead this time?"

Idiot me, I galloped up there with eyes wide and a "Can do!" attitude and made it all of ten feet. Maybe eight. It seemed like SkyBird was fighting me every inch of the way, and before just a few feet had passed I was being smothered face-first by folds of nylon that refused to lose their air. By ten feet I was heaving and panting and being blinded by sweat and hot swaths of blue nylon. That's when The Instructor stepped up and laughingly showed me that it's done BACKWARDS. You stand with your back to the mass of air, wrap your arms around and you fall backwards into the giant, springy mass of nylon and hot air, forcing it toward the top's open vent. It holds you up, you squeeze. It's almost fun.

Yeah, I learn, eventually. This morning put that learning to the test, and what do you know but it worked! Granted it was still hot sweaty work but it was a lot more efficient than having a face-full of hot blue nylon with all the resilience of, well, a bag of air and what seemed an instinctive need to be difficult. She squoze (another aviation term there) out nicely, we wrapped her in her velcro straps, packed her in her bag and loaded it all up.

Ski Lift ended up coming down in a rather posh neighborhood and we arrived in time to give John a hand with repacking. I even felt secure enough in my new-found knowledge to be lead man when it came time to squeeze, and yes, my teaching held firm. Hot, sweaty, but a damn sight easier, and I probably looked almost like I knew what I was doing. I even managed to recognise the perfect dark square in a silvery dew-covered front yard where the gondola had hit then bounced back up, and the longish, rough drag mark where it had wandered before finally coming to rest. But like all aviators everywhere have said-- "Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing."

I guess the same can be said for lessons.

Photos! Careful, full size is BIG.

SkyBird and Ski Lift chasing each other right after liftoff

Ski Lift, shot from the chase truck

Touch And Go - Going...
Yesterday's photo op. Clicking will bring you to Flickr and the rest of the shots.

And DEFINITELY go check out Vulgar Wizard's aerial shots, also on Flickr!


Nancy Dancehall said...

Aw. Some. Now I want to squeeze out a balloon by leaning back into the air. That sounds like fun.

I hope YOU can fly next time!

Ballooning before the storm...

Irrelephant said...

Nancy, it's surprisingly easy once you do it the RIGHT way. Funnily enough, most of life is like that isn't it? It's just a matter of figuring out the right way. As for my flight, David promised me a go, and I believe him. I'm patient, kiddo, as patient as a stone. *G* Especially when something good is coming as a 'reward' for that patience.

Ballooning Before The Storm. THAT should have been the title of the post, except that there's absolutely NO indication that there's a hell-storm right off the coast. It's always like that here--we're fairly far inland and decently above sea-level. Thankfully.