I’ve been hot-air ballooning twice. The first time was so unbelievably wonderful that I emerged with a new outlook on life. The second time was so awful that I emerged with a face full of dirt. To wit:
Balloon flight #1 took place in northern California. The pilot picked us up at our hotel at 5 a.m. and drove us in a pristine, balloon-company van to our pre-planned launch site. On the way, he received radio updates from his ground crew, already there, about wind conditions.
We arrived to find the balloon inflated by the ground crew and ready to lift off. With plenty of space for all five of us in the basket (the pilot, B. and me, and another couple), we floated upward peacefully and then began our gentle air voyage.
The pilot — unquestionably qualified — took the balloon up, up, up above the beautiful landscape, and then so low as to hover above a stream so that we could see the fish. Awesome.
But wait, there’s more. When it came time to land the balloon, he pointed out a spot near a fence way, way below us. “See that fence?” he asked. “I’m radioing to my ground crew to meet us there, because that’s where I’ll be setting down.” And he did. Right where he said. On a dime. As soft as a pillow. Afterward, as the ground crew took care of deflating and packing up the balloon, the pilot drove us back to our hotel and to a champagne breakfast.
Balloon outing #2 took place somewhere in the Southwest and could not have been more of a contrast. We had only decided to do it the evening before and felt lucky that there were openings in this much-touted company’s schedule. Yup. We found out why. Fast.
Balloon flights launch early, and we were instructed to meet the other passengers and crew at a corner at the edge of town at 5 a.m. Turned out, this was a dark, deserted corner. Our pilot and crew showed up in a broken-down old van and drove us around from spot to spot while they tried to figure out a launch site.
Once there, we were told that we were responsible for helping to get the balloon inflated. Not a request, a directive. While we did that, the pilot tried and failed to send up the “pibal” (the balloon that tests wind conditions). Licking his finger and sticking it out in the breeze would have to do. Uh-oh.
We launched shortly thereafter but, unlike the first balloon trip where there was plenty of room for everyone, there were about three too many people in this basket (I’d like to give a special shout-out to the big guy with the extra-long camera lens). Up we drifted, and then down, where we splashed the river before coming back up again. Splash and dash, balloonists call it.
More like splash, dash, and crash.
Because once the flight was winding down, things went, shall we say, downhill fast. Our pilot, who, it was now obvious, had lost a number of brain cells and credentials to a lifetime of who-knows-what-substance, seemed to have trouble locating a landing site. His ground crew, in a van below us, kept driving around maniacally, trying to track the balloon and figure out where we would set down. Finally, with no rhyme or reason, Captain Jack decided to touch down on a piece of uneven prairie. With sharp rocks. Snakes. And oh yes, sagebrush.
He set the balloon down (actually, it kind of fell the last several feet) with a monstrous thud, and both balloon and basket tipped forward. And tipped forward more. And kept leaning closer and closer to the ground, with me right there in the front. Just when I thought that it would right itself before falling over all the way, it tipped over the last foot or so and there I was, kissing sagebrush. Not exactly the kiss of champagne bubbles.
To add insult to injury (mostly scratches and some colorful bruising as souvenirs), we were told that we’d have to help deflate and pack up the balloon if we wanted to be driven back to our cars. If you think that sounds unreasonable, it was. But no one was looking for the sequel to Deliverance — and these guys were just crazy enough to make you want to get the hell out of there as fast as possible. Plus they knew where we were all staying in town.
Would I do it again, even for an experience as amazing as the first one? Uh, no. Because only sometimes do you get exactly what you pay for and expect.
Other times? Just a face plant. And a lot of hot air.
© 2013 Claudia Grossman