Everyone’s in Albuquerque.
That was the response of our balloon pilot when we asked, “Why are we the only people using this hot air balloon launch site this morning?” A member of our chase crew this morning, quickly volunteered that on one occasion, 68 balloons launched in a Mass Ascension from this Chatfield site.
The Montgolfier Balloon launch site where we were standing on this brisk mid-October morning, just before sunrise is located in Chatfield State Park south of Denver. It is the only specifically designated balloon launch area in our Colorado park system.
My journey to this place in this park on this day started back in 1997. But that’s another story told in Part II of this blog.
This year, in celebration of my 72nd birthday, I finally scheduled and took a balloon ride, an experience that had been on my “list of things to do someday” for 17 years. The hot air balloon ride was truly a delightful adventure made possible by kind and generous friends – an experience I’d like to share here with a few photos.
In the foreground is the shadow of our lighter-than-air craft. In the middle of the photo is the Denver Botanical Garden at Chatfield waiting to open in a few hours for their annual Halloween Pumpkin Festival including the 8-acre corn maze and a pumpkin patch when youngsters harvest their own pumpkin. And we five passengers in the gondola were given a balloon’s eye view from a respectful distance (but not as close as shown in Figures 4 & 5 from the Botanical Gardens web site: http://www.botanicgardens.org/corn-maze/about).
When we caught a breeze that was headed north we turned and could see the Denver skyline in the distance probably some 20 miles away. The balloon travels at only 1000-3000 feet altitude, so you maintain a great view during the entire flight.
Things I learned from the Flight Experience: Because you are traveling with the wind in a hot air balloon, you do not perceive the wind. There is no wind chill. The air around you is perfectly calm. As you ascend or descend you get a brief sense that there is some air motion as the craft adjusts to its new layer of moving air, but the breeze is ever so subtle on your cheeks that you would miss it if you weren’t thinking about it.
Balloon pilots don’t bother to file a flight plan because there is none. The pilot has no clue where this particular flight on this particular day is going to take him and his passengers. The chase crew waits patiently during the flight until the pilot begins his descent. Any attempt to follow the craft during its 1 hour flight would be wasted effort. As the propane fuel begins to run low, the pilot begins to look for a touchdown / landing site that is safe and close to an access road.
After (but not before or during) the flight, the pilot might mention that over the course of his hundreds of flights there have been some interesting landings – including a water landing in the Chatfield reservoir just last week where he had to request a “water rescue.” Or the time when he landed on a major highway, was ticketed and had to appear in court where the citation was dismissed. Or the times he has landed in certain fields where the rancher got upset when the chase crew requested access to recover the balloon and passengers. He indicated most ranchers and farmers don’t mind if a balloon lands near an existing road, just not in the middle of their field.
Yes, I would recommend a hot air balloon ride to all my friends. And it’s not necessary to go to Albuquerque to catch that ride. But Albuquerque’s Mass Ascension should probably be considered one of the great annual events in the world.
P.S. for my close friends. I also learned that the balloon we flew in carried about 50 gallons of Liquid Propane gas (LPG) in four separate tanks. Yes, as you suspected, during the flight between photo opportunities, I was thinking about how the Liquid Propane could be replaced by a sustainable fuel. That’s what rocket scientists do. NASA and the Department of Defense have sponsored research on “green” fuels so there are a number of possible alternatives for hot air balloonists of the future.