"We have a wicker basket for sightseeing flights, which is what tourists expect in ballooning," said my instructor, "but in training, we use the gondola. Otherwise, you are liable to wind up with a pile of kindling after a hard landing." I cleared my throat. The balloon tycoon had not said anything about hard landings. Still, at this point, I was not put off.
The balloon, like Gaul, was divided into three parts—the envelope, the burners and the gondola—and I expected to have no more trouble than Caesar when he marched in and took over. Hughes handed me the materials needed for ground school: a protractor for plotting courses, an aeronautical sectional chart of New York, a hand computer and a much too thick paperback entitled the Private Pilots Handbook. It was filled with graphs, airplanes drawn to scale flying on dotted lines, weather maps and incomprehensible sentences. A random example:"ICG. OCNL MDT ICGIC. FRZG LVL 8�-1�� LWRG TO NEAR SFC BHND LO CNTR." Serenity would obviously have to wait.
Late that afternoon, when the wind was still, we took the Raven out of its bag and prepared to inflate. Hughes taught me how to seal the crown and explained the crown rip strap that opens the top of the balloon to deflate the envelope. The crown, usually opened after landing, allows enough hot air to escape to deflate the balloon quickly. It may also be used in emergency landings.
"In landing," he said, "you will probably need only to use the maneuvering vent—this rope—which opens a flap in the side of the balloon. Opening it will control drifting and bring you straight down, but your descent will be rapid, so you will cushion your landing with short, steady blasts of heat." I said I would cushion like crazy. He dragged a gasoline-run fan out of the truck. "We start by blowing air into the balloon with this fan." It looked oily. I inspected it from a distance. He flicked a switch, and cold air rushed into the balloon, which rippled, then billowed and swayed first to one side then the other, suddenly puffing up and out, rather like a society matron bustling about: all bosom, no legs. I had been set to holding on to the front outer edge of the fabric through which a short handling line was laced, raising my arms over my head to create an opening so that the air could be directed toward the center of the balloon. Hughes, who was holding up the other side, manipulating the fan at the same time, let go long enough to light the two enormous burners affixed inside the gondola that lay overturned on the ground. The first noisy blast sent me reeling. I would, said Hughes, get used to the noise of the burners. As the air inside the envelope heated, the balloon rose and the gondola righted itself. Unfortunately, I was rising, too. When my feet threatened to leave the ground, I let go.
"You're not tall enough," said my instructor bluntly, as if I had just displayed some genetic deficiency previously hidden. He was not exactly a towering specimen himself. Slight of build, he seemed to be in his mid-30s, brown hair already receding. A flyer most of his adult life, he walked with short, springy steps, each footfall a separate little takeoff.
"Hop in." More blasting, flames shooting upward. The gondola rocked and left the ground.
"Buoyancy is the amount of lift you need to overcome gross weight," explained Hughes. As he seemed to expect some sort of informed response to this, I said, "No kidding."
"That may be one of the questions on the FAA exam, so try to remember." I said I would. Below, as we skimmed over an apple orchard, a group of teenagers on motor scooters were chasing a rabbit. It was clear from my vantage point that the rabbit was going to win. The boys left their bikes as we hovered overhead and began to play a game called lob apples at balloonists. A few steady blasts of hot air took us out of range, but not before we had plucked some of the fruit from the top of a tree. Hughes indicated three instruments attached to a panel: a pyrometer to show the temperature of the air inside the balloon, except that it was not working; an altimeter that would have given us our altitude, except that it had broken down; and a rate-of-climb indicator to show ascent or descent in feet per minute. That seemed to be functioning, but it was best not to give it too much attention, said my instructor. A balloonist should learn to fly by "feel," by keeping his eyes fixed on the horizon. "You will begin to feel the rhythm, with practice. Always face in the direction you are going. You must see what is out there in front of you. When you blast to achieve altitude, the balloon will not respond to the added heat for about 15 seconds, so you must be able to calculate how far you will travel during the delay. Keep an eye out especially for power lines, and give them a lot of berth. The gondola has enough momentum to cleave through the top of a live tree, but avoid dead trees because they don't give. When we land, hold on tight and flex your knees." There was more to it than I had imagined, but there always is.
Sneaking a look down, I could see the balloon truck parked ahead of us on a nearby road. Bruce Wilson, a friend of Hughes, was chasing. He had lived in the area all his life, knew every back road. He would find us, said Hughes, wherever we landed, and he pulled the rope that opened the vent. We went down with a thump in a vacant field, bounced up again like a rubber ball, dragged a few feet and settled. I pulled the crown rope that opened the top, like a layer of skin being peeled back. Soon the balloon was once again a 70-foot length of fabric lying inert on the ground. Our chaser was already backing the truck onto the field.
Except for a few new refinements such as instruments and Raven's exclusive maneuvering vent, the balloon has not changed much since the first one went up in 1783 near Paris. "What is it good for?" inquired a spectator on that occasion, and crusty old Benjamin Franklin, Ambassador to France at the time, replied, "What good is a newborn baby?" A baby, Franklin might have been told, does not have to have hot air squeezed out of it before it is put to bed. Gathering the fabric up in both arms, I walked backwards, squeezing, while Hughes and Wilson resealed the crown. By the time I reached the center of the balloon, the air had all collected behind me, making it a dead weight.