Ballooning in Asheville!

Amy and I went to Asheville a few weeks ago for fishing and another concert at the Diana Wortham (Cathie Ryan, excellent!), but we also added another bit of excitement: hot air ballooning!  Amy mentioned last year that she’d always wanted to go ballooning, so I looked up operations in the Asheville area and bought a flight for her Christmas present.  I figured we could schedule it to coincide with one of our trips to town, but it almost didn’t work out, because high winds on Friday required them to bump us back to Sunday.

Amy often posts travel related posts on her blog when they prompt paintings, but she doesn’t usually write much about the trip, focusing more on the subject of her painting.  After this trip she wrote such a nice writeup that I’ve given her the spot of guest blogger!

By Amy Lyn Edwards

We gathered around the pilot in the parking lot for our pre-flight brief as the crews unpacked the three balloons. The baskets lay on their sides with the thin balloon fabric and lines stretched out above them.  The air was distinctly chilly.  It was pre-dawn.  The eastern horizon had just begun to turn pale yellow.  They always fly in the early morning when the winds are the lowest.

We watched as the balloons began to fill with hot air.  Slowly rising off the parking lot.  At this point they looked more like multi-colored snakes then balloons.  The balloon we would ride in was the largest of the three and still on the ground when the smaller balloons had filled and righted their baskets.  It takes eight to ten minutes to go from limp fabric to inflated ballon ready to fly away.

Once righted, the pilot gestured to the passengers to come to the balloon.  The sound of the propane burner makes it impossible to hear what someone is saying.  One by one we climbed into the basket while the pilot continued to add hot air to the balloon.  They use d external propane tanks for the pre-flight and had to de-couple them before we left the ground.

Suddenly the basket starts to shift and scrape.  Your stomach tells you the world is changing.  Slowly we rise above the parking lot.  At first everyone shifts around nervously, holding on to the rope hand-holds.  As we continue to rise so does the sun.  The fields and mountains around us light up and there is no more nervous shifting.  We are caught by the beauty of the views unfolding around us as we rise above the tree tops.  We continue to rise in the silence of the dawn.

As we fly over a neighborhood dogs start barking at us.  The spell is broken, and we all talk at once.  We talk about the views of the mountains, looking down on birds and trees from above, and the people that are looking up at us in the balloon.  The balloon’s shadow races across the land below us.  We are flying!

As we climbed higher the direction of the wind shifted and the speed increased.  Most of the time we didn’t feel the wind, since we were moving at the same speed as the wind.  Only when the ballon was in a layer that was different then the basket did we experience wind shear.  The pilot guided the balloon’s direction by adjusting how high we were.  At times he dropped us below the tree tops, letting the lower level winds slow us and change our direction.  Sometimes he slowed us down by letting the basket brush along the tops of the trees.  This gave us an opportunity to identify the trees based on their leaves.  It also freaked out a hawk that was nesting in a pine a few trees over from the oak we had our identification lesson in.  The basket weights thousands of pounds and with the added weight of 7 adults was in no danger of tipping.

We flew over a quarry.  I watch the shadow of the balloon move across the wall as we slowly sink down into the quarry.  The pilot talks about times when he has landed in the quarry.  We are not landing in the quarry.  The wind in the quarry is lighter and takes us in a different direction.  Soon we are across the quarry and rising up and out.  Based on the noises they made the Canada Goose are happy to see us go.

Now the pilot is talking with the chase crew.  They pick a site for us to land but the wind shifts again and we can’t make it.  Adjustments are made and the crew races off to a new location.  We are flying at tree top level past a lake surrounded by condominiums.  People are standing on their balconies watching us and waving.

The pilot is telling the chase crew to standby for us to set down next to the side walk.  We had joked about people thinking we were landing.  Now we were.  Motorists were sticking their heads out their car windows watching us.  We briefly edged into the top of a tree and the pilot threw out the landing ropes.  The chase crew caught the ropes and helped direct the descent of the basket.  We touched down light as a feather on the road just in front of the van parked.  A woman in a passing car leaned out and asked were we “coming down or going up”.  We all answered “Landing”.  She waved and drove on.

Back on earth.  As the balloon slowly deflated, one at a time we disembarked the basket.  The chase crew stretched the deflating balloon out along the road and squeezed the remaining air out of it.  Then four of them started stuffing it back in the bag.  Manhandling all that fabric made the task of stuffing a sleeping bag back in its sack look pitifully easy.

As the ballon had collapsed the basket had turned back on its side.  The chase crew backed up the trailer to the basket and they tipped the basket up on the trailer.  Backing the trailer up a little more and they were able to wrangle the balloon filled sack up on to the trailer too.

The trip was now complete.  Now its time for beignets and a late breakfast at Mayfels.

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