I’ve been saying for a long time that I have just one item on my bucket list — to take a ride in a hot air balloon. Good friends heard me say this and very generously paid for and arranged a flight for our 36th anniversary. I’m sure they did this because they love us and not because they are ready for me to kick the bucket.
We scheduled six or seven morning flights last summer and fall, but every one of them was cancelled due to weather. This year I decided to schedule afternoon flights and on my very first try, we were in.
I received a call around noon telling me to meet the balloon crew in a parking lot in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, at 6:00 p.m. We were met by John, who is the pilot, along with five crew members who help him inflate and deflate the balloon and keep it from blowing away when it’s on the ground. We also met Rene, who sometimes works as a crew member but on this evening was coming along as a passenger.
Sally and I piled into the backseat of the pickup that was pulling the balloon trailer. John gave us instructions on the way and contemplated the weather. The sky was cloudless, the weather was in the low 60s. The only issue was the wind. It was blowing at about 11mph, which can make for bumpy landings, but was due to calm down as the evening wore on. We drove about 10 miles to a school lot next to a housing development.
Sally and I stood and watched while the crew unloaded the basket and envelope (that’s what the balloon guys call the balloon itself). Nobody noticed the little red chair I was carrying until I took this photo.
John released a couple helium balloons and watched them rise. After they rose above the surface winds, they rose pretty much straight up, so he determined to go for it. The inflation of the envelope began with a fan.
Then John fired up the burners in the basket and continued inflating the envelope.
As the balloon rose, it tilted the basket upright.
We were standing by waiting for the order to climb into the basket, which came very quickly. We just managed to scramble inside when we took off. There was no fanfare. We drifted up calmly and were soon well off the ground. (I grabbed this next photo from the Lake Geneva Balloon Company facebook page. You can’t tell, but that is our flight.)
The largest building in the center of this next photo is the school. The pickup and trailer can be seen parked on the grass in front of it. That’s where we launched from.
We climbed steadily past 2,000 feet, then more slowly to our top altitude of about 4,000 feet. John takes photos of all his passengers in the air. (I got this on on the Lake Geneva Balloon Company facebook page also.)
I handed him the chair and took a shot of him and Rene.
He pointed out Chicago on the horizon to the southeast …
and Milwaukee on the horizon to the northeast. For a little while, there was a small plane performing acrobatics a mile or so away.
Lake Geneva was off to the west.
To the south we could see Twin Lakes and, right on the horizon, Chain O’Lakes in Lake County, Illinois.
I expected that we would be drifting steadily over the landscape, but once we got up high, we pretty much parked.
I am not, as a general rule, afraid of heights if I have something to hang onto. At no time during this flight was I nervous. There was a bar in each corner, part of the frame that held up the burner. If I was leaning out at all, I hooked my arm around this, but otherwise I paid no attention.
On a couple occasions, we drifted into winds that were moving faster than we were and felt a little breeze. But most of the time there was no wind at all because we were moving at the same speed as the air. The only temperature variation came when John punched the burner and a hot burst of air hit us on the back of the neck.
The burner was loud, but when it wasn’t going and we weren’t talking, it was silent. We could hear dogs barking down below us, even when we were at the highest point. I heard, and then saw, a couple of Sandhill Cranes flying about half a mile off to the south.
I found the shadows fascinating. The height also gave us a great look at the bumps and ripples in the ground, left over from glaciers.
This was the closest we came to flying over a body of water. This is Dyer Lake.
We weren’t harnessed or anything. The only thing preventing us from falling out of the waist-high basket was our will to live.
At times we just enjoyed the quiet and view in silence. At other times we chatted, punctuated frequently by the blast of the burner as John kept the balloon at the altitude he wanted.
Looking up into the envelope from the basket. This is the only way to take a photo of a balloon from in the balloon.
I took this photo to try to capture the balloon and the view and posted it on facebook while we were in the air.
John told us he’s performed a wedding in the balloon. He got ordained into some church online so he could offer the service. He’s lost count of how many marriage proposals he’s witnessed.
John pointed out an airport where he hoped to land, but the wind didn’t cooperate. After 45 minutes, he dropped down to just above the treetops and began communicating with his ground crew.
The last 15 minutes were the most exciting for me. We caught the surface wind and began moving faster. We scared up a Wild Turkey which flew cackling across a field into the woods and a Turkey Vulture that flapped away as quickly as it could go.
We also startled a lot of dogs, some of which ran around under us and barked and others which panicked and ran for cover. People heard the noise of the burners and came out to look, wave and take photos as we passed over. This woman’s dog had just scurried inside, whining as it went.
We spotted the ground crew. John was communicating with them about where to land. He settled on a cornfield and told the crew he would come down on the far side and lay the balloon down on a dirt road that ran next to it. He told us how to brace ourselves by holding onto handles inside the bag with both hands.
The next two photos, taken by the crew as we approached, are from the Lake Geneva Balloon Company.
That’s me in the front with the camera around my neck. Check out the moon in the upper right.
John bumped the ground a couple times to slow down as we crossed the field. I could see inch-high corn plants growing in rows. I figured we were doing quite a bit of damage, but Sally and Rene, who were facing backwards, said they couldn’t see that we were hurting anything at all.
The bounces were pretty jarring. I almost went overboard at the first one. Holding on to a handle with both hands at belt height isn’t the most efficient way to brace when you’re tipping forward against a waist-high railing and jarring into the ground. I managed to stay in the basket and not kill or embarrass myself.
I turned on the camera and let it record as it dangled from my neck.
We bounced four or fives times. When we came down on the edge of the field, the crew grabbed and held on. John got us all arranged and situated, then had us climb out of the basket one at a time. He was kind enough to allow me to get a red chair photo while the envelope was still inflated.
They let the air out of the envelope and tipped everything over.
The process went quickly. Air was pushed out by drawing the envelope through a metal ring.
While all this was going on, Sally and I chatted with a guy who pulled up on a motorcycle to watch the proceedings. I’d seen him earlier, watching as we sailed over.
The envelope was folded over into its bag. One of the crew guys grabbed the chair from Sally and told her to jump on the bag to collapse it.
We drove back to the parking lot. John, Rene, Sally and I sat around a table outside a pie restaurant. He gave us a little history of hot air balloons — the first one went up in the 1780s and until fairly recently they were mostly considered for military purposes.
We then toasted each other with champagne (I only took a single small sip because the stuff is disgusting) while John recited the Balloonist’s Prayer:
The winds have welcomed you with softness.
The sun has blessed you with its warm hands.
We have flown so high and so well that God
has joined you in laughter and set you gently
back into the loving arms of mother Earth.
And we were home by 9:30. It was every bit as beautiful and cool and amazing as I’d imagined and I am very thankful for having had the opportunity. ThaNK you.
John posted this flight record on the Lake Geneva Balloon Company page.
Here it is on a satellite image. The red stars indicate our take-off and landing spots.
And to put it all into perspective.