My family happened to be vacationing in Walt Disney World when I turned 18. That day, as a newly minted adult, I took a ferry to Downtown Disney in hopes of experiencing something only adults could experience- signing my own liability waiver! I wanted to ride the then-new “Characters in Flight”, a giant tethered helium balloon. Unfortunately, when I got there, it was closed due to the wind. But as a left Florida that year, I was determined that I would eventually be able to have lots of non-airplane flying experiences… and also sign lots of liability waivers!
About a year later, I went to a local hot air balloon festival. It was there that I got to take my first tethered hot air balloon ride. After signing my waiver and waiting an hour in line, the ride lasted maybe three minutes, and gave me a great view… of just the field where it took place! It was well worth the $3, but it was only an adventure appetizer when I wanted a dinner buffet.
For three years now, I’ve decided to do something adventurous for my birthday. After meeting up with my family at Disney World (for the fourth time), or taking a bike trip around Columbus that ended up with me suspended on a high wire, I was looking for something that would be even better this year, especially since I was spending my first birthday at home since age 19. My plan actually wasn’t on my bucket list, but probably should be: go paragliding! I called a local paragliding guide and made plans for my birthday weekend.
On Thursday night, I received a message from the pilot with some bad news. The mountain that gliders have used for years belongs to the Bureau of Land Management, and somebody complained about the property’s use. That means all paragliding in the area will be shut down for at least six months. And of course it had to happen right before my birthday weekend! I still wanted to have some high-flying fun for my birthday, but would I be able to get anything arranged in just one business day?
Referring to my Travel Bucket List, I picked out the ones that would be able to be done in the area and started scouring the internet for contacts. On Friday morning, I got two responses. One was from a helicopter service that offered me a one-hour flight for just $1500 (yeouch!), and the other was from Daybreak Ballooning that, while not cheap enough to be a regular activity, was WAY more affordable and worth every penny for this special occasion. So at 6 am Saturday morning, I was all set for my first real hot air balloon adventure!
My friend Steph had agreed to accompany me on this ride, and my parents came to watch our take-off. But first we watched the crew set up. The first thing they did was figure out the wind pattern using what is probably the best instrument in the business: an ordinary helium party balloon. Fortunately, we had great weather conditions. We then went out to the soccer field of Jewett Elementary School for set-up. First, they took out the three-person basket, and then they spread out the envelope (the actual balloon part). Using a fan, the envelope slowly began to take shape, and eventually, some heat was added.
Steph and I got into the balloon with our pilot Drew, and went over, like, two safety rules 1. You can hold onto something if you want to as long as that something is not the fuel line, and 2. Don’t get out of the basket for any reason unless you’re told to. Then with few pumps of heat, we lifted off!
How do you describe the view? We were hovering over Central Point, which I lived in from age 3 to age 15, so I was very familiar with the town and many of its buildings, but I never saw any of them like this before! (Google Maps would be better if it was taken from a hot air balloon’s point of view!) Of course, when you’re up in the air, the first thing you want to try to find is your house. We were a little too far away to find my current house, so I instead tried to find my childhood home. I found Central Point Elementary, where I attended from kindergarten through fifth grade, and then peered into the suburbia beyond that to see if I could spot the street.
I did find a corner market that’s about a block away from the house. While I didn’t exactly see that house in the air, I did take lots of pictures of the area so maybe I can zoom into the photo later to try to find it.
It was kind of fun to spy on other people’s houses, too. I now know where to go if I ever feel like crashing a pool party!
Some people were outside and, when we were low enough that they could see us in the basket, we’d wave at each other.
One home had a super-cool large tent that you could practically live in.
And then there was this one house that had a bus in their backyard!
But more fun than looking at houses was looking at buildings that I knew about. Besides my elementary school, I got aerial shots of the other two elementary schools (including the one we launched from), as well as my high school. My middle school is on the outskirts of town, so it was harder to see that one, but eventually we did get close enough to take a few pictures.
Another thing that was neat to see was the churches.
For awhile, we were hovering in one spot above the McDonald’s. My parents had told me that they were going to eat breakfast there after we launched, and I was able to spot their car in the parking lot.
We floated over the main street and saw many of the local businesses. In the distance, we could see the interstate, the Family Fun Center, the Jackson County Fairgrounds, and the mountains. We even saw the Medford Airport and watched a plane take off!
One thing I hadn’t thought about until this morning was that hot air balloons can’t really control where they’re going. The crew was on the ground chasing us and keeping in contact during the entire flight, but toward the end, they were essential in helping us get a place to land.
Pilot Drew had pointed out some of his common landing sites early in the flight, such as all the different school soccer fields, and even some power line-free residential streets, but the wind ended up taking us toward a wheat field. Of course the chasers had to ask the farmers if it would be okay to land there, and we really didn’t want to make crop circles on the wheat, so we headed to a farm road that split up two of the crops. And then I was offered the opportunity to play pilot!
Okay, so all I really did was pull the trigger that made the fire whenever the real pilot told me to, but it sure was an experience! At that point we were also getting lower, and I mean really low, to the point that we could probably reach out and touch the wheat. (I was probably more nervous flying at that point than I would have been at our highest altitude!) Fortunately, no wheat was harmed in the making of this birthday experience!
Our pilot threw a tether out to the crew member so that we could make sure we landed right between the two fields, and after bouncing a couple times, we were back on solid ground. For a few minutes, we just stood in the basket while the balloon deflated enough (that is where the don’t-get-out-of-the-basket-without-permission rule really comes into play, because one less body of weight could make it take off again!). We then got out as everything was taken apart and returned to the trailer. Steph and I then hopped in the car with the crew and we headed back to our starting point. But the fun wasn’t over yet!
When we returned to the elementary school, we met up with my parents and then gathered at a picnic table that the crew had set up. While we were munching on the treats, Drew explained that, since it was our first flight, he would tell us the history behind hot air balloons and the traditional after-flight champagne toast. Ballooning was first done in France in the 1780s, before any other human-carrying aircraft was even though of. It started out by carrying a few animals, then someone took a tethered flight, and finally, they were brave enough to try a real flight. During one of the early flights, a balloon had to land on farmland. The farmers, having never seen anything like this before, thought this smoke-causing contraption must be a demon or something equally evil and vicious. To prove that they were just ordinary Frenchmen, the balloonists offered a very French-like peace offering: a bottle of champagne.
In our correspondence beforehand, I had noticed on the website that champagne was served, and being a teetotaler (who tried champagne once and found it awful), I mentioned it was not necessary. But we were still able to carry on this tradition using sparkling cider instead. But first, Steph and I had to participate in another tradition of drinking “champagne” without your hands while kneeling on the ground and a traditional prayer is said over you that includes sprinkling!
We all chatted for a little bit longer, asking any last burning questions we had about flying hot air balloons. Then we all thanked each other for the part we each played in making this event happen, and I got a few birthday wishes as we left. Even though it was a day before my actual birthday (which is today), this was a great start to a birthday weekend!
Have you ever flown without an airplane? Have you ever wanted to? What would you like to do for your next birthday?