Sunday, October 13, 2013

How to Launch a Hot Air Balloon

I had good intentions of posting to this blog more frequently during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, but it seems that we were so busy I didn’t have time to do it justice. I did post a few times on Facebook, including an album of the Pigasus balloon, for those of you who are Friends – and if you’re not, send me a friend request.

It’s hard to select from over 800 pictures I took during the Fiesta, so I decided to report a typical day for us while serving on a balloon crew.

We were on the launch field every day before dawn to help launch one of two balloons owned by Luc and Loren Goethals, pilot and crew chief for Zipper (a standard shape) and Pigasus (a special shape). The Dawn Patrol flew each morning just as it became light enough to see without flashlights, followed by a balloon carrying the American Flag while the National Anthem was sung.


Then the first wave of balloons started to launch as the sun rose over the Sandia Mountains to our East.


The first few steps for our crew were to unpack the balloon envelope and lay it out on the grass, while the pilot connected it to the basket after assembling the propane burners and other equipment, then he cold-inflated the envelope with a large fan.


I usually was stationed at the fan (NM law requires a person to always be holding onto the fan) and Don was usually one of two people holding open the throat of the envelope. We are on the right, below, smiling while Loren and Luc posed for a picture.


The next step is for the pilot to start warming the air. See the flames as he expertly aims the propane burners into the envelope to heat the air, avoiding the lines and fabric.


When the air is hot enough, the envelope starts to rise, bringing the basket up with it.


This is when we turned off the fan, and I had to quickly pull it out of the way while other crew members helped steady the basket and keep it from lifting off the ground too soon.



Although it was usually in the high 30’s or low 40’s and our toes were frozen, we were all smiling!


When you see sights like these, how can you not smile?


We then packed away the fan and everybody hopped in the truck to begin the chase. Don loves driving the chase vehicle (he gets his truck fix), and he takes instruction from the navigator (not me) who’s watching the iPad. He occasionally makes U-turns, sometimes where it’s not allowed (but city police are lenient on chase crews), and occasionally touches a traffic cone or barrel.

Depending on the speed and direction of the wind, we would find ourselves trying to figure out how to get to the area of the valley close to the balloon’s likely descent. Aided by an iPad with geo-tracking software, we could see where the balloon was and usually have a good idea of where to head for the landing. If we arrived before the landing, we would help stabilize the basket until the pilot was ready to collapse the envelope. If we arrived later, he would keep the envelope inflated until we arrived.


If the ground was rough and/or full of weeds, we laid out tarps to protect the envelope.


To deflate, the pilot pulled lines that exposed the crown and allowed the warm air to escape.


After squeezing out the air, we folded the envelope into one long piece like a snake.


The stronger people, usually guys, fed the ‘snake’ into a large bag.


Tarps were folded up and stowed away.


After everything’s packed away in the trailer, it’s time for a little celebration!


Luc is an excellent pilot and Loren a great crew chief, and they’re always appreciative of the help of their volunteer crew. After every flight, they served snacks and beverages, including champagne, Mimosas, O.J., water and soft drinks. Occasionally there was a cake to celebrate a special event, and twice we all got a small taste of a unique Belgian liqueur that’s only available in Belgium, Luc’s home country.

Next time I’ll tell you about the flight I went on.