How I Helped A Hot Air Balloon Pilot at the Arizona Balloon Classic

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the 7th Annual Arizona Balloon Classic as part of a balloon crew. I woke up early on Saturday morning, January 27th, drove 15 minutes from my home in southwest Phoenix to Goodyear, Arizona, where this year’s balloon classic was being held at Goodyear Ballpark.

I arrived at just before 6:30am and checked in at the volunteer tent, where I received a volunteer t-shirt and was pointed in the direction of the tent where all the balloon pilots were gathered. The sun wasn’t up yet and it was a cool 43 degrees, as people ate donuts and drank their hot coffee. I arrived with several other volunteers who had signed up to be part of the balloon crew, which basically meant you would be assisting out-of-state balloon pilots who didn’t have crews with them to set up their balloons for flight.

Now, I have never been in a hot air balloon, I’ve also never been near so many and been so hands on with the flight and landing of one. We have a lot of hot air balloons that take flight on Arizona mornings often throughout the year, you can spot them in the distance while driving along the freeway. The local environment is very conducive to hot air balloons, lots of wide open desert and fields where you can take off and land, without needing to worry about tall objects getting in the way. I’ve always thought it would be fun to ride in a hot air balloon, but have never had the opportunity. It’s not actually cheap to ride in one and can cost you a couple hundred dollars, depending on whether the balloon pilot charges per ride or an hourly rate. Although, now that I’ve had the experience of working with a hot air balloon, I think riding in one is definitely something I want to check off the list. Especially since I found out that most balloon pilots will offer free rides in their balloons if you crew for them enough times. For some it’s ten times and others five (like Peggy, the pilot that I crewed for), that’s a pretty good deal.

So back to the actual task of being part of a balloon crew. I’ve never attended the Arizona Balloon Classic and this was the first time I have volunteered for an event like this as well, so I really didn’t know what to expect. The website had given a generic description of what the balloon crew volunteer could expect, but I wasn’t sure how hands on it would actually be. The decision to volunteer was also a last minute one. I had seen a post on Facebook, shared by a friend, about the balloon festival and the need for volunteers, this was probably sometime around the middle of week and I signed up on Friday. I received a confirmation email and that was it, I was signed up.So there we were, a small group of a volunteers, with the instruction to wander over to the pilots and see if anyone needed help. While part of the group helped themselves to coffee and donuts, myself and four others were approached by a woman who told us she needed four volunteers and asked if anyone had claimed us for their crew yet. We shook our heads and offered to be her four volunteers and that was it, we had found a balloon pilot to work for.

Introductions were made and we were guided to the trailer belonging to Peggy of StarLite Balloon Flights. There was a pilot briefing just before sunrise, where they were given the weather conditions and their task, a Hare and Hound competition where the lead Hare balloon would fly off first and set down a target during the flight and the rest of the balloons would then have to chase after and hit the target with bean bags. The winner, the pilot that hits the target, would receive a cash prize of $1,000. A local radio station had also given away free rides on the balloons, for passengers to ride along during the event. Our pilot, Peggy, had two passengers from Mesa, Arizona that would be joining her on the flight.

The briefing ended and as the first rays of sun began to peak above the horizon, we set about emptying the contents of the trailer. The basket was pulled out, along with the balloon in it’s cloth bag, and the burners. We were first instructed on how to attach the burners to their stand and place the stand on top of the basket, then wrap the legs with leather sleeves that zipped up and protected them and also held the fuel lines in place leading from tanks up to the burners. Next, we pulled the balloon out of its bag, by slowly pulling the bag along and emptying the balloon as we went. Once the straps holding the balloon together were removed, the balloon was spread out a bit.

Myself and another volunteer were then asked to hold the opening of the balloon, up and apart, so that regular air could be blown into it by a large fan. I never realized that this was the way the balloons were inflated, not by hot air to begin with at all. We watched the balloon fill with air and had to adjust our grip to allow the balloon to receive a continuous flow of air and grow ever larger. Finally, the basket was tipped on its side and the balloon was hooked up to the basket. We let go of the opening and were asked to step to the side of the burners and grip the strings to the balloon to keep them out of the way as the flame was turned on, while the fan continued to blow into the balloon. You could feel the heat of the burners as they heated the air inside the balloon, which then slowly began to rise up. The basket was lifted back up and a friend of Peggy’s named Terry, who had actually been her instructor many years ago, held onto an anchor line to steady the balloon as it straightened out. The fan was turned off and a couple of us gathered everything up. We were then tasked to hold onto the basket to weigh it down until it was time to take flight. The passengers climbed in, the hare balloon took off, and then it was time to let go and watch Peggy’s balloon float up into the open sky and drift across the streets towards the open desert and farmland.

After we had taken pictures of the balloon we had helped launch, and of many other balloons while watching them inflate and take off, we set about packing up everything that remained back into the trailer. It was then time to chase after the balloon ourselves. Yes, you read that correctly, we had to follow the balloon. Hot air balloons cannot navigate, they can’t choose which way they go and they can’t go back to where they took off from. They are at the mercy of the wind. So it was now our task to follow the roads out to where the balloons were headed, where they would fly long enough to find and try to hit the target before finding an open field or patch of desert near a road to land on. Myself and two other volunteers climbed into the truck with Peggy’s husband, Gary, and headed off.

I sat up front and assisted with navigating, using the maps app on my phone to find the best roads to use while we kept sight of the balloons in the distance. Gary kept in contact with Peggy over the phone and after pulling off Country Road 85 and onto a small yet busy road called S. Jackrabbit Trail, we pulled off onto a side road, and parked off to the side between two fields and waited. We had pulled ahead of the balloon and sat watching it come our way, as two other balloons landed in the field to our left. They quickly realized the field was too thick with some type of weed-like vegetation, so they “walked” the balloon out of the field (the pilot lifted off just enough to hover a few inches off the ground so the crew could push it along) and across the side road where we and a few other crews were parked with their trailers. On our right was a grassy flat field that was far better to set down and deflate the balloons.

At first, we thought that Peggy would be able to navigate the balloon to the same field, but just as she neared the road, wind kicked up close to the ground and caused her to have to land on the opposite side of the main road from us, in the desert. We drove across, walked down a sandy dirt road (which was riddled with coyote tracks), and then proceeded to “walk” the balloon up the dirt road. A couple people kindly assisted to stop traffic for us on S. Jackrabbit Trail, so we could push the balloon across both lanes into the side road and down onto the field. It was actually surprisingly easy to relocate the balloon. We then set about pulling everything out of the trailer again, tipping over the basket, detaching the balloon, removing the burners and stand, wrapping up the balloon as it deflated, and packing everything up.

The hardest part was trying to pull the balloon together and walking backwards, while someone else put the straps back on, there was a lot of resistance from the air still in the balloon that made it heavy. Peggy’s friend took over the hard part, having a lot more experience with this part of the process (and a bit more muscle) while myself and the other volunteers held up the already wrapped balloon, to make it easier to strap and move along to the very end. Finally, the balloon was stuffed back into its bag which we all sat on to let more air out of it. It was then wrapped up and loaded into the trailer. Next, the trailer was backed up to the basket which we had tilted up on one end, and once it was just right the basket was lowered and pushed into the trailer as well.

Everyone climbed into two vehicles, Terry and the passengers in his car, and us volunteers in the back of the truck with Gary and Peggy. We all drove back to the Goodyear Ballpark, where Peggy set up a small feast of meats, cheeses and fruit to eat while we all shared a champagne toast for those old enough to drink and orange juice for the highschool aged volunteers. Peggy explained that it was a ballooning tradition to always share a glass of champagne to toast after a successful flight. She then proceeded to tell us the story of man’s first flight, which was not the Kittyhawk flown by Wilbur and Orville Wright, but a hot air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris, France in 1783(piloted by Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent d’Arlandes). This was the first documented untethered flight by man.

At this time, the balloons were fueled by bonfires, which would often catch fire to the fields upon which they landed, angering the local farmers. To appease the farmers and keep them from trying to kill the pilots and destroy their balloons, pilots would carry bottles of the King’s champagne which they would then give to the farmers. A bottle of the king’s champagne was worth a lot, often more than the land the farmer’s owned, and so it became a tradition to share a bottle of champagne with land owner’s whenever a balloon was forced to land on private property. This also eventually included the toast and the ballooner’s prayer, which is a poem that is recited as part of the after flight ceremony:

May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God
joins you in laughter and sets you gently
back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

And that brings us to the end of the adventure. The passengers left, on their way to a birthday party, the two high schoolers went to meet up with their mother, and I was left to chat with Peggy, Gary, and Terry until I too left at about 10:30am. Everything had been accomplished in just about four hours, from set up and lift off to landing and packing up, plus the after flight ceremony. In chatting with Peggy and Terry, I found out that they had both met in Germany, where Terry had been in the US Air Force stationed in Bitburg, near the German border to Luxembourg. Peggy had been living in Germany at the time, and saw an ad in the paper from Terry about teaching Hot Air Balloon pilots. The rest, as they say, is history. I mentioned that I had been born in Germany and Terry correctly guessed I was an Army brat based off the location. He then asked me if I could speak German, in German, and I responded that I could, also in German.

It was then time for Terry to leave and I headed off shortly after. But not before Peggy thanked me for all my help, shared the information that I was now very valuable as a volunteer as I was trained balloon crew, and mentioned that she gave crew members a free ride after the fifth time that they crewed for her while some other pilots did ten. She gave me a hug and I thanked her for the great experience and wished her and Gary a good day.

I’m not going to lie, I woke up quite sore on Sunday morning, especially the muscles in my arms. But I don’t regret any of the heavy lifting, it just means that I need to start working out again, and with weights. Despite the hard work, it was a lot of fun and a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the operation of a hot air balloon. I would definitely be game to volunteer for a balloon crew again in the future. I am also even more interested to eventually ride in one as well. But, only time will tell. I’ll have to keep a look out for future balloon festivals.

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