Friday, 23 July 2010

Sedona: Hot Air Ballooning

Over 10 years ago, the family visited Sedona, a great place to visit by the way that everybody should put on a list at least once. During our week there, we planned on doing a hot air balloon ride but made the mistake of scheduling it for our last day. That particular day, the winds were not favourable so the ride was cancelled. Being our last day, we didn't have another opportunity to go for a ride. Ha! I still remember driving out of Sedona the next day back to the airport on a calm, sunny day and counting 8 balloons in the air around the town. Darn!

Consequently, when we decided to go to Sedona for a second time, I was determined to not make the same mistake. I booked a ride for us all but for early in the week. If we once again had bad luck with the winds, there was a good chance the next day or the following day would see us in the air. In any case, the lesson learned was to not book your flight for the last day of your vacation!

We arrived in Sedona on Saturday for our week long stay and had a day to unwind. On Monday, we got up at the ungodly hour of 4am to get ready before going to the pickup point to the central office of our resort. A truck company Red Rock Balloons came to pick us up at 5:25 and then our driver drove through the town of Sedona and continued in the national park to rendezvous with the rest of Red Rock group. I was given to understand that ballooning is something one does when the wind has died down as much as possible which seems to be either at sunrise or sunset hence, the "ungodly" hour of our flight.

Before you begin, the team always launches a trial balloon. By studying its trajectory, they can determine the strength of the winds and the currents at different altitudes, etc.; in short, if the winds are suitable and conducive to a launch. Obviously, if too much wind, a balloon ascent would be dangerous.

After five minutes of watching the test balloon, the team leader raised his thumb to indicate that they were going to start. Our truck and two other trucks of Red Rock including trailers containing the balloons themselves went to the launch point. A small bus full of other passengers joined us.

Once there, we noticed that there were two teams and two balloons. Our balloon, the largest, had a basket capable of holding twenty people while the smaller one was for ten.

Both teams set about removing the balloons and baskets from their trailers and setting them up. Part of this job was to unfold and stretch out the balloons themselves, a huge mass of what I guessed to be nylon fabric. Atop each basket, the teams set up a frame to which they attached a burner then attached the various ropes of the balloon to the frame. Interestingly enough, they anchored each basket to a truck before starting the process of blowing up the balloon. This entailed placing some large fans at the mouth of each balloon to inflate the fabric. Once the balloons were inflated, the pilots began to use the propane burners to heat up the air. As the air warmed, the balloons began to right themselves until they rose above the baskets. I asked as I stared up at the towering mass of inflated fabric and was told that each balloon had a height of 5 stories.

Boarding the basket was a bit of a novelty. Initially, the balloons and their baskets were laid out on their sides. Just before the balloon began to rise up due to the hot air and thus right the basket, the team partially fill the baskets by having some of the passengers essentially lie in it. Our basket of the largest balloon was divided into five compartments, four for passengers and a central one for the pilot. Half the passengers were ordered to get into each of four compartments, and when the balloon rose to the vertical, the passengers found themselves standing.

The rest of the passengers climbed on board and I did the same thing myself. Our driver gave a short speech on what to do in a balloon dotted of course with some jokes: "The smoking section is outside the basket."

I hadn't realized it but the basket had actually lifted off the ground. It was still tethered to one of the Red Rock trucks so the team could control when the launch actually took place. I was thinking with a smile of a funny scene where the balloon takes off with the entire truck dangling from it however I guessed that in reality, the balloon would never have enough lift to pick up a truck.

Finally, the driver yelled "Let's go!" and the ground crew detached the cables from the basket. Links to Mother Earth being cut, the basket and its 20 passengers rose from the clearing while floating silently above the treetops.

Silence reigned. This is the most striking feature of the flight that I remember. From time to time the pilot warmed the air in the balloon and we could all hear the swoosh of the propane burner but other than that, silence. We were floating in the air as if by magic. No plane, no rope, no other way to explain how we were hundreds of meters above the ground.

I have been in small planes over the years and of course, have been thrilled with flying. However, this experience has always been connected to a small plane, something which is noisy. In contrast, the balloon is totally silent. To stand in the basket and look around as you float with an incredible degree of calm and tranquillity without the noise of a propeller engine is a truly amazing experience. This seems strange to say but it is magic! Where is David Copperfield?

I think all the passengers gasped. The air in this region is clear, amazingly clear. This corner of the United States is not heavily industrialized, therefore there are no polluters. This morning was no exception. With such clarity, we could look quite a way into the distance. In addition, the sky was completely blue, no clouds, and we were all bathed in sunshine; the sun was just creeping above the horizon.

At the highest point of our flight, the pilot reached an altitude of 700 meters or approximately 2200 feet and at the lowest point, we touched a pond. Ah, here's the story of the pond.

We were floating near the ground, trying to see the fauna and flora. Slowly, we approached a pond. The pilot told us that often, he was able to perform a manoeuvre called "Splash and Dash" and since we ended up just above a pond, he would try to do it.

First, I should clarify the term "pilot" a balloon. An airship or dirigible balloon may be directed. Nevertheless, a balloon or a hot air balloon cannot be directed as such. The pilot can raise the balloon by heating the air or let it descend by letting the air cool but it cannot really direct the balloon. The balloon and its pilot are pretty much at the mercy of the wind. Yes, there are flaps with which a driver let out air, however the true piloting of a balloon is in understanding the currents of air and how air moves in a different way depending on the altitude. Our pilot spoke of the city of Albuquerque in the state of New Mexico, where every fall, there is a balloon festival, supposedly the best place for such an event. Apparently, at one altitude there is a current of air that moves away from the city and at another altitude there is another current of air that returns to the city. Consequently, the airmen can take a ride if they follow the proper air flow. In Sedona, the wind always blows in the same direction: we start from a point in a national park and we get to the other side of the park at the end of our journey.

Above the pond, the pilot pointed out to us that we could see the reflection of the balloon in water and of course ourselves, too. I looked down and the surface reflected the bottom of the basket, the faces of the other passengers peeking over the side and the huge balloon over our heads. Everyone took a photo. Slowly, we descended until the bottom of the basket touched the water surface and then the pilot turned the burner to warm the air and we rose once again. That was our "splash", touching the water, and our "dash", taking off again.

The region around the town of Sedona is typical for this part of the United States. It looks like the Grand Canyon and I was struck by the significance of this comparison. Normally, when you look at the mountains, you are seeing the phenomenon where tectonic plates have collided pushing up the land to form said mountains. In comparison, this region was formed by the action of water. It was submerged in an ancient ocean and the canyons and valleys represent the erosion of the earth. When you look at a mound, hill, higher ground, you tend to regard them as a mountain yet, in reality, the higher ground is usually ground level and you are actually below ground level.

When we were in the balloon, floating above the valley and had a panoramic view of the city of Sedona, the valley, the hills, the so-called remote mountains, I realized where we were. There were no mountains; we were in a trough, an area below ground level. The tops of these mountains, the "elevations" were in fact ground level.

Sedona is situated in a valley where half is occupied by the city and the other by a national park. Our launch has taken place from one side of the park, we were swept away by the wind through the park and we finally landed at the other side of the park just outside it. I asked the pilot how he planned the landing and he explained that it depended on the wind. Sometimes, depending on conditions, he was forced to land on private property, a ranch. However, despite the invasion by these balloons, the ranch owners seemed to warmly welcome these fliers.

All in all, a hot air balloon ride is a very unique experience. It's not cheap, but I can tell you it is not something you'll forget. If I can jokingly refer to the movie critics, I give ballooning 2 thumbs up!


Wikipedia: Hot Air Ballooning

Wikipedia: Hot Air Balloon

Red Rock Balloons

Red Rock Balloons: Photos

You don't necessarily have to go all the way to Sedona, Arizona for a hot air balloon ride. A quick search on Google revealed a number of companies in and around Toronto which offer this unique experience. Check it out!

Google: Toronto Hot Air Balloon Rides


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