Ahh, the celebrated hot air balloon ride! Up, up and away, as the song goes. If you have never tried it, I think you are missing out on something sensational. Years ago, my wife and I purchased tickets to an air balloon ride at the Norge Ski Club in Fox River Grove, Illinois. The Ski Club boasted a small hill (Illinois is mostly flat) with an incredibly long takeoff ramp. The winter months provide the perfect Midwest solution for local ski jumpers to master their craft. However, in the summer months, something equally amazing happens to the Norge Ski Club. Balloons!
Huge, colorful, globed-shaped hot air balloons begin to appear in Fox River Grove in early summer. Air balloons work because hot air rises. By heating the air inside of the balloon with a manual burner, it becomes lighter than the cooler air on the outside. This causes the balloon to float upwards, as if it were in water. Obviously, if the air is allowed to cool, the balloon begins to slowly come down. Now you know enough about this unique activity to decide if it is for you. If you are not sure yet, then continue reading and I will provide you with more details from my personal experience. The good and the bad.
My air balloon ride story began when my wife and I started seeing balloons in the sky near our home. With some quick research, we learned that they were launching from Fox River Grove, just a few towns south of us. At the time, we were river people and like good river people, we spent our time and energy (and loads of cash) on boats. But the idea of taking a hot air balloon ride sounded exciting.
Always the adventurous, we decided to sign up for two spots on one of the balloons. The day of the flight, we arrived early at the ski club, hoping to see balloons and how this whole business works. And we did. There were at least a dozen balloons there in one stage or another of getting ready for flight. We seen balloon owners just arriving and unpacking their gear, others that had the balloon attached to the basket, and others who were already inflating their balloons. We were even able to catch a glimpse of a balloon leaving the ground. It was fascinating. We made our way to the main office and secured the tickets for our flight. A young gentleman escorted us to our balloon which was still being inflated. There were eight or nine riders already there. As the balloon filled, we could see the rich, brilliant colors of our balloon. It was terrific! Reds, yellows, greens & blues all presented in flowing patterns all around our little zeppelin.
The basket, or gondola, could carry twelve riders including the pilot (also known as an Aeronaut in civil circles). The pilot must have a license or an airman’s certificate to fly. Our man, Tom, had the papers and the experience, giving me a bit more courage. We started our adventure by getting trained on some fundamental techniques needed when flying. I wasn’t necessarily happy to learn technique number one was to learn how to prepare for crash landings, the equivalent of bending over, grabbing your knees with your head down. Technique number two wasn’t much better. We learned how to handle the “bouncing scenario”. This situation can occur during a landing, when the balloon begins to traverse sideways along the landing site bouncing again and again. With our training complete and a few nervous questions answered, we began to board the basket. No turning back now.
We were led up stairs to a small platform and stepped down into the wicker basket. The basket was constructed of six small cells (chest high), each capable of supporting two riders. It looked like we had a full house today after the last rider climbed into her chamber. The pilot and first one aboard, Tom, rode in the center position directly under the burner. The burner is connected to the gondola and aims up into the opening of the balloon called the mouth which was fashioned with cylinder-like material known as the skirt. He would supply short burst of heat which kept the “envelope” (yep, that’s what they call it) of the balloon filled and ready for take-off.
The moment had arrived and linemen on all sides of our balloon were untethering us from the bonds of our Mother Earth. I stopped breathing as we began our ascent into the wide open blue. Within seconds the people below us were ants and our car in the parking lot looked like a child’s toy. Tom gave the burner several long pulls and we lifted faster. I was alarmed at how loud the burner sounded. Conversations had to be paused when the burner was going. An now even further up we continued. I could see the sky line and the long crooked path of the Fox River begin to take more shape. We steadily rose higher.
I risked vertigo by looking down again over the edge of the wicker rail. I could not believe that another balloon below us was going sideways in the air. “Tom. How can that other balloon go sideways? It seemed impossible to me.” Tom smiled and laughed, “Ahh, now you understand a bit more about Einstein’s theory. It’s all relative. They are no more going sideways then they think we are. Everything is relative now that you are in this three-dimensional blue world” “Amazing!” I said with much astonishment. Just then a flock of Canadian geese passed below us, heading eastward, honking the whole time. All the riders jumped and waved at them. I jumped up and down too, which brought my attention to the floor of the gondola. Sudden fear came over me as I realized how high Carrie and I were and the only protection between us and earth was wicker! I noticed a metal support beam in the middle of our cubicle cell and moved my feet to it in a very lame attempt of making myself safer.
The whole world came into our panoramic view. I could see that Carrie was thoroughly enjoying herself. She was pointing out landmarks that she spied from our wicker cell. The world was our oyster, as they say. She and I turned to each other and shared a great big smooch. The fellow riders applauded. Tom said, “You know we have performed several weddings up in balloons. It’s a thing.” “Really?” Carrie replied. “Yep, the only problem is you have to parse your vows between burner pulls!” and Tom laughed. I liked his smile. I imagined that he really loved his job. How exhilarating to be able to do this for a living. “Hey Tom, we live only a few miles northwest of here on the Fox River. Can you fly us over our house?” He looked at me inquisitively, “Mike, I can’t control the direction of the balloon, only the wind can do that” “Oh, I didn’t know. Sorry”
As our little floating family traveled along, we did manage to follow the course of the river and in fact we were heading directly towards our house. Soon we blew over the McHenry dam which meant we were practically in my backyard. I shot a glance back at Tom who was pulling the burner and wandered if he was pulling my leg and could make this animal do whatever he wanted. Either way, it happened. There was our neighborhood, Boulder Junction, and our house was the fifth one in line. We were definitely going to float right over it. I’m not much of a bragger by nature, but I’ll tell you this. I would have given a hundred bucks to have one of my neighbors see us up in this beautiful balloon waving down at them. Ah, the tasty seed of gloating. But nay, not a single soul to be had. Figures.
As we floated directly over our house, I turned to Carrie, “This is so cool! If I wanted to, I could drop my wallet from this balloon, secure in knowing it would land in the private confines of our backyard.” Carrie retorted, “Yea, your luck, you would miss the yard and hit the fireplace chimney. Keep it in your pants” I wasn’t sure if that last remark was a double entendre, but decided it best not to start something with my wife while 1,000 feet in the air.
With a couple of major burner pulls, we lifted and were whisked further along the river, at this point, nearing the end of our journey. I noticed a gradual descent occurring and felt a bit sad that our trip was coming to an end. That thought was replaced with the balloon safety training and how exactly were we going to get this thing down… safe?
The sun was beginning to set but there was still plenty of light in the sky. I could see we were in for a nice sunset with the clouds setting up for a spectacular view. By now we were on the north side of McHenry proper, maybe five miles away from our house. With only a few hundred feet to the land, another fantastic event occurred. You see, there is something magical about hot air balloons. They are magnets for thrill seekers (of course), horn-honking cars, and especially small boys on bicycles with their running dogs. I was surprised at the number of cars, bikes & dogs we were picking up in the last leg of our flight. I felt like someone in between a politician and a movie star. Carrie and I, well the whole basket for that matter, were waving and cheering ourselves on as the spectators just below us followed in suit.
Now we were not more than a hundred feet above ground and Tom put on his serious face. Unbeknownst to me he had been keeping radio contact with the balloon van that was following us on land via whatever street could keep them close in contact. Now it was time to decide where to land. The radio conversation agreed that the open field in front of our balloon was ideal. It had actually been used before when the balloon found its way to this part of the region. “Oh boy, you don’t want to land in Schaumburg or even worse Inverness!” Tom announced. “They don’t like us messing up their precious properties. We do whatever we can to stay clear.” I thought to myself how sad that sounded. So anyway, the field is where we will put ‘er down then.
But Tom started to get nervous because it looked like we were going to overshoot the landing spot. My mind raced back to the “bouncing scenario” and I became a little worried. We were leaving the open field into someone’s backyard and we were only twenty feet in the air now! With all the burner thrust Tom could muster, he raised us another five feet just as we entered the backyard, heading straight for someone’s house. But he did it, he cleared the roof. He did hit the TV antenna though it merely turned clockwise a few hours on the dial. Now what? We found ourselves in a subdivision. Homes everywhere. Then I seen what my pilot’s master skills were made of. He immediately opened up the “Deflation Port” at the top of the balloon’s envelope and we dropped, fast. Across the street from the home with the twirling TV antenna, was a corner lot with a house built a full five feet higher than the sidewalk was. This simply meant their front yard was a slope. A lot of stairs to get to the front door as it were.
Tom turned to me and another gentleman, “Mike, Jim. I need you to be ready to climb out of the basket when we touch down and do exactly as I say!” “Roger that Captain!” The balloon above us was now a full third depleted. We hit good ol’ Mother Earth right on that slope. The forward motion of our machine caused the massive balloon to continue on it’s path, leaning near the house and causing our gondola to tip. “Now, Mike! Hop out and pull the basket back!” I did as I was told only to realize the problem now shifted to the other side. “Jim, do the same!” He did. It came back to my side and I had to repeat my basket pull. This went on again and again. Finally I could see that Tom had opened that deflation port wide open and the balloon was nearly empty. It began to sag on the riders and the basket. Just then a large van rushed up to the corner, slammed on its brakes, and two men jumped out to gather the balloon. We were down, on the ground, safe.
The corner street filled with cars, bicycles and dogs. We were part of a summertime spectacle that would probably last in everyone’s mind for a long time. I know it has for me.
Do yourself a favor. If you get a chance, go for a hot air balloon ride. You won’t regret it!
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