| WYOBRASKA ADVENTURES |
“My latest assignment for WyoBraska magazine: go up in a hot air balloon, and then write about it. At this rate, I’m assuming that my next article will involve discount bungee jumping or a day as a PBR bull rider (I really shouldn’t be giving my boss any ideas.) But since I’ve tried everything from motocross to Senior Bingo Night at the Elks Lodge at least once, I decided that I’d cross it off my bucket list.”
| A SHEEP, TWO DUCKS, AND A CHICKEN
The hot air balloon is the simplest, and first successful human-carrying flight technology. The Chinese invented the sky lantern somewhere around 200 AD, and a Jesuit priest named Bartolomeu de Gusmao dreamed up a predecessor of the hot air balloon in the 18th century called a Passarola, but the first untethered manned balloon flight was performed by two Frenchmen named Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent d’Atrandes on November 21st, 1783 in Paris.
King Louis XVI, being a practical man, had decreed that condemned criminals, being expendable and in steady supply, should be the first pilots, but de Rozier and d’Arlandes, who had apparently consumed enough of the red stuff to decide that this was a brilliant idea after watching a sheep, a duck, and a chicken (a trio who undoubtedly did not volunteer for this mission) make the return to earth in one piece, successfully petitioned for the rather dubious honor of being the first people to crash a sack of flammable gas and fabric into the rooftops of the unsuspecting denizens of Paris.
Fortunately for all parties involved, their balloon, sky blue and decorated lavishly with fleur-de-lis, zodiac symbols, and golden suns complete with Louis XIV’s face in the center, rose 3000 feet into the air, drifted about 5 and half miles in 25 minutes, and landed safely between the windmills on a hilltop outside of the city, while de Rozier frantically beat out flaming embers that were scorching the balloon fabric, made of taffeta with a coating of alum for fireproofing, with his coat.
The first balloon flight in America wasn’t until January 9th, 1793. Another Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, launched his balloon from the prison yard of the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and landed in New Jersey, immediately lifting jailbreaking to a whole new art form.
Unfortunately, in 1808, Jean-Pierre fell from his balloon while flying over Den Hague in the Netherlands, and didn’t stick the landing. His wife Sophie would later, in what wasn’t exactly the smartest decision in the history of the human race, strap fireworks to the basket of her hydrogen gas-filled balloon and attempt to fly over Tivoli Gardens in Paris, which ended about the way you’re probably imagining that it did.
| PRIORITY SHIPPING MY LAST WILL & TESTAMENT
I’ve never been in a hot air balloon. The only time I’ve ever even been in an airplane was a Southwest flight from Phoenix, Arizona to Portland, Oregon in 1999, which involved copious amounts of small adult beverages to make it through a 4-hour direct flight.
My only other brush with being more than 40 feet or so off the ground (a NSFW story also involving alcohol) was a miserable experience involving a chair lift at a ski resort in Oregon. So it’s understandable that I was not keen on the idea of being trapped inside a flaming bag of hot air thousands of feet off of the ground when the idea was suggested to me, and, after reading the brief history of hot air ballooning above, I immediately wrote a will and overnighted it to my sister in California for safekeeping.
I’m not a fearful person. I used to strap myself to racehorses for a living, but at least a horse is only 6 feet or so off the ground, not 3000 plus. Also, as a jockey, you get a glorified bicycle helmet and a padded vest for an illusion of safety. In a hot air balloon, you get a rope handle attached to a 250 lb wicker basket.
Luckily for me, and not so much for the recipients of my will, hot air balloon technology has improved dramatically over the last 239 years. Modern balloon envelopes are usually made of nylon, with an interior coating of fire-resistant material like Nomex, so one can enjoy their flight without sacrificing their clothing. A wicker basket also called a gondola, is suspended at the bottom of the balloon, and holds both the passengers and the heat source (usually a large liquid propane burner) that raises the air temperature inside the envelope, making it lighter than the colder air surrounding the envelope and causing it to lift off of the ground.
There is also something that the Frenchmen didn’t have back in the 1700s: a ground crew. These unsung heroes are invaluable in determining whether a balloon launch is safe to proceed with, depending on wind and other factors, and they perform the setup and inflation of the balloon at the launch site.
Once the balloon is safely in the air, this group becomes the chase crew, who stay in constant radio contact with the pilot, determining a safe landing site and following the balloon from vehicles on the ground. When the balloon is once again on solid ground, they do nearly all of the heavy lifting, deflating and correctly folding the envelope to be returned, along with the basket, to the trucks that they followed the flight with. Commercial hot air balloon flights simply could not happen without a ground crew, who all too often don’t get the recognition that they deserve.
After waking up at what for me is an unconscionable hour of the morning, I made the brief drive from my house in Lyman to the Mitchell Airfield and pulled into the yard at High Plains Hot Air Balloon Company at exactly 6 am.
I was greeted by the owners, Mike and Colleen Johnson, and their ground and chase crew, who already had a several stories tall, crazy quilt patchwork-colored-balloon named “Crosswinds” ready and waiting to take me and two other passengers on our flight.
Taking off early in the morning is ideal, as the sun hasn’t yet heated the earth’s surface enough to create the thermal activity that creates sustained winds. Ideally, winds for a commercial balloon flight range from 3-6 mph, and the Scottsbluff area averages about 9 mph during the summer months, so there are plenty of beautiful mornings to take advantage of and sneak in a flight over the North Platte River Valley.
Our pilot on this beautiful Sunday morning was Mike Johnson, co-owner of High Plains Hot Air Balloon Company. Mike and his wife, Colleen, after a job transfer that took them to Denver, Colorado from their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, decided in 2018 that they wanted to pursue their passion of flying hot air balloons full time. They quit the rat race, sold their home in Denver, purchased an old farmhouse in Mitchell, Nebraska after falling in love with the area, and began High Plains Hot Air Balloon Company.
Colleen, a native of the Hot Air Balloon Capital of the World, aka Albuquerque, is a champion hot air balloon pilot and the Executive Director of the Old West Balloon Fest, which takes place this year from August 8th thru 13th. Mike is also an expert pilot and is one of only a handful of people to fly a hot air balloon over Pike’s Peak in Colorado, an altitude of 18,000 feet.
The ground crew was Doug Beebe, Ames Hartung, Derick and April Strauch, Carol Bernard, and the real boss of the operation, Corra Beebe, who was celebrating her 4th birthday on the day of my flight.
| DEAD BY NOON
After climbing into the basket with the other passengers, Mike gave us instructions on what to expect when the balloon launched, the various parts of the balloon including the envelope throat and the propane burners, and how to correctly duck, lean, and grip the rope handles inside the basket when the balloon lands.
The most important rule is to never jump out of the balloon at any height until instructed by the pilot to do so unless you would like to watch a hot air balloon being launched into outer space (I know that it sounds like doing this would be hilarious, but it’s actually incredibly dangerous for the pilot and passengers who are still in the basket. Don’t do it.)
Fully expecting to be dead by noon, I was surprised at how easily the balloon lifted off the ground and sailed into the atmosphere. Since a hot air balloon travels with the wind, there is no sensation of movement like one has with an airplane ride, and no noise except the occasional blast from the propane burner that keeps the balloon aloft.
From over 3700 feet off the ground, we could hear cattle mooing in the fields below us, and the sounds of the all-important chase crew following us down the gravel roads with their pickups and trailers, as we soared over Mitchell and the North Platte River Valley, traveling east with the breeze.
Anecdotes entertained us about how Mike became a balloon pilot, his fear of heights, the rules of competitive hot air balloon racing, and how he and Colleen ended up adopting John Elway’s dog (don’t forget to ask about Princess Catherine while on your flight, it’s a great story.)
I didn’t get a hint of dizziness or motion sickness, even when looking over the side of the basket and shooting photos from my perch nearly 4000 feet above the earth’s surface, and I can barely drive my lawn tractor through the dip at the end of my own driveway without getting vertigo. Anyone thinking that a hot air balloon flight is equivalent to a Six Flags roller coaster ride like I was, will be astonished to learn that they have been completely wrong.
| HAVE YOU EVER LANDED IN A CORN FIELD?
Landing a hot air balloon is one of the most difficult skills that a pilot has to learn. After traveling just over 7 miles, reaching an elevation of 7734 feet, and waking up at least one Scottsbluff county resident, who emerged to stare upward in confusion as we sailed over the top of their house while losing altitude and preparing to land, Mike expertly placed us on a strip of dirt road at the edge of a corn field without a bump. We only decapitated one corn stalk, by complete accident, while landing, which was later presented to me as a souvenir.
Everyone, including the passengers, then jumped into gear to help deflate the balloon and load it and its basket back on the trailer for its return to Mitchell. Since the average hot air balloon (with a deflated envelope, basket, and 2 fuel tanks) weighs about 800 lbs, this is an all-hands-on-deck moment, which is all part of the fun.
Upon our return to base camp at the Mitchell Airfield, we celebrated our successful flight with a champagne toast (be sure to brush up on your outfielding skills for this one), a gourmet breakfast, an humorous narrative of the history of hot air ballooning, and a small souvenir to commemorate the entire adventure. Be sure to sign your name to the register that the Johnsons keep as a record of their many passengers, and sign up for your next flight.
If you just can’t get enough of the adventure and would like to score free rides while becoming an insider in the hot air ballooning community, consider joining a ground crew. It is a lot of hard work, but incredibly rewarding. Crews come in all shapes and sizes, and some positions don’t require physical strength, just a willingness to ask questions and learn. There is a place for everyone in the world of hot air ballooning, so don’t hesitate to ask your pilot if they are looking for volunteers while on your flight.
| MAKE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE IN WESTERN NEBRASKA
Book your own trip with High Plains Hot Air Balloon Company by calling Mike or Colleen Johnson at (308)-225-0128, or drop them an email at: email@example.com.