I’m writing this post Monday morning – Labor Day – after a labor-intensive weekend crewing for our friends and their hot air balloon, the Hearts A’Fire. We expected Brad and Jessica Rice to arrive at the Hotel Elegante in Colorado Springs Friday afternoon. Around 6pm, Donna and I took a short walk around the property and ran into Jeff and Katie – other friends and also crew members for Hearts A’Fire. Little did we know Brad was already onsite but his wife Jessica was driving up separately with their kids and fellow crew member Darin. Jessica came in much later than expected – I think it was after 9pm.
We already made plans for the crew to head out at 5:45am Saturday morning to Memorial Park where the Labor Day Lift Off hot air balloon event takes place. I had my alarm set for 4:50am – or so I thought. I got distracted while I was setting the alarm and instead of setting it for Saturday morning I had it set for everyday except Saturday. Luckily my internal clock woke me and I checked my watch next to the bed at 5:10am. I scrambled and managed to down a cup of coffee and meet up with the crew on time.
We needed the early start as we had to put a sponsor banner on the balloon envelope and we were scheduled to take off early.
It was a Hare and Hound event and we were the hare. The way it works is this – the three commercial Rainbow Ryders balloons take off first with their huge baskets holding a dozen or more paying customers. Then Hearts A’Fire would take off. The task was to set the balloon down somewhere with the rest of the balloons following. After lift off, getting the chase vehicle out of the park is always interesting. Aaron and I walked in front of the truck and tried to keep spectators clear along the paved path. Most people were oblivious as they took photos or watched balloons inflating. We managed to keep it clear enough and got out of there.
When Brad set the balloon down, we unfurled a large X on the ground. Brad waited a few minutes to give the other balloon pilots a chance to see where he landed, then took off again. The object was for the other balloonists to drop a bean bag and try to hit the X we set out. The closest bean bag wins a prize.
Brad continued to fly southeast and then found a high school football field to land in. There was a scoreboard and goal posts that created an obstacle. Brad cleared them by a few feet and was actually close enough to touch the upright on the goal post as they floated past. The landing was perfect – the basket stuck on contact with the grass.
The balloon was deflated and we had it packed up in no time. Sounds easy, but it entails some work and bit of heavy lifting. We went back to the park where Jessica had staked out space for our breakfast tailgate party.
We packed up and were back at the hotel by noon. Donna and I stay in our motorhome on the hotel property while the rest of the crew has rooms in the hotel. I had recorded the Formula One Qualifying from Monza, Italy – or so I thought. I kicked back and started the replay. After a minute and half, the qualifying session was red-flagged due to heavy rain. The next three hours were delay after delay. My recording ended without seeing any qualifying. I was half snoozing on the sofa anyway.
At 5:30pm, we were headed back to Memorial Park. They had a glow scheduled for Saturday evening. A glow is a static display of the balloons. We inflated just before sunset. Once it was dark out, the balloons glow like lampshades when the pilot hits the burner.
There were quite a few people that must have hung out at the park all afternoon when we arrived. Soon the park was packed with balloons and people.
By the time we were packed up again it was after 9pm and I was worn out. To tell the truth, I don’t enjoy static displays or glows so much. It’s the same work as a flight without the satisfaction of a launch, chase and recovery.
When I got home I found Donna had a small party happening in the coach. Jessica, Melissa, Katie and her husband Jeff were enjoying wine and conversation. I poured myself a dram of Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch. Later, Brad’s brother Eric and his girlfriend Brittney joined us. I was exhausted but it was after 11pm by the time I got to bed.
Sunday morning my alarm worked fine and I was up at 4:50am so we could do it again. The weather was great for flying with the exception of wind direction. The wind was taking the balloons due south. The preferred flight path is southeast or even easterly.
I was navigating in the chase vehicle. Colorado Springs isn’t the easiest place to navigate as many roads are dead ends or loops. Also, road names change in a seemingly haphazard fashion only to revert back to the original name in another area. On Saturday, I was able to navigate our way to keep us in sight of the balloon and put us in place just in time for the landing.
Sunday didn’t work as well. We had communication issues as we weren’t receiving all of Brad’s transmissions from the balloon. The balloon was heading south so I found a route that would position us ahead of him. Then we lost sight of the balloon. This was the first time I can think of when we didn’t have a clue where the balloon went. Finally we were able to reach Brad by cell phone and found out he was north of us and had landed in a soccer field. Luckily, Eric was nearby at the time and Eric and Russ were able to secure the basket at the landing site.
We found them and proceeded to pack the gear and head back to the park for another round of tailgating with breakfast burritos and beer.
On Sunday afternoon, I watched the Formula One race then snoozed while watching the US Open tennis tournament. The rest of the diehards were at the pool with the kids and Donna went to find them. It was hot out – mid-90s. We had the generator and air conditioners running all afternoon.
I joined everyone at the pool around 5:30pm, then Donna and I walked to Bada Japanese Restaurant for a sushi dinner. When we came home, Donna went out to rejoin the party but I was whipped. I was out by 10pm and slept like a rock until the alarm woke me at 4:50am.
Today the weather didn’t cooperate. The winds aloft were moving too fast for ballooning. Also, a lot of smoke blew into the area from forest fires in the northwest. We ended up with static display only. There were a couple of highlights though – well maybe the first encounter wasn’t really a highlight.
After we arrived at our assigned spot, Brad and the rest of the crew walked down to the pilots’ briefing about a quarter mile away. I hung out back at the truck and trailer. Just before sunup, a guy came by pushing a wheelchair and stopped about 15 feet away from me. He lifted what appeared to be a girl about six years old or so out of the wheelchair. I saw him manipulating her legs, then he knelt down and set her gently on the ground and began manipulating her arms. That’s when I realized this was a mannequin – a doll – not a real girl. After about 10 minutes, he lifted the doll back into the wheelchair and wheeled it away through the crowd. Weird – no, it was creepy!
During a static display, four or more crew members station themselves around the basket to keep weight on it in case the wind tips it or it begins to lift. While I was holding the basket, a small group of Asian people approached me. Most of them apparently didn’t speak English. One girl and guy started asking me about a balloon ride. I referred then to the Rainbow Ryders commercial balloons – affectionately called the cattle cars. They came back twice more asking me about getting into the basket, they wanted two of their party to get in – the communication was poor, but I got the gist of it.
I told them to ask the pilot, Brad if they could get in the basket. I heard Brad tell them to come back in 10 minutes before we deflated the balloon. They came back. Most of the group lined up with cameras in front of the balloon. Then a young guy in dressy clothes and a girl in a white dress stood in front of the basket. The guy handed her flowers the got down on one knee. He produced a small jewelry box and ring and proposed to her while the rest of their group took photos with the Hearts A’Fire balloon in the background. Then they both climbed into the basket for more photos. You never know what you might see at these events!
We packed up and Jessica dropped Donna and I off back at our rig by 9:30am. We said our goodbyes. They all have to make the five- or six-hour drive back to Albuquerque. I think we’ll stay put for another day – we can hang at the pool and use the hotel laundry. Tomorrow we’ll go to the Elks Lodge and plan our route into New Mexico. Starting tomorrow the weather is supposed to cool dramatically – they’re calling for a high in the mid 60s!