I’ve been flying hot air balloons since 1983. I’m proud to say I’ve never had an accident (knock on wood). And although I’ve had a couple of memorable pucker moments, the only passenger injury I ever inflicted was when a woman broke the tip of her pinky finger on perhaps the softest landing I ever made. I didn’t even find out about the “injury” until several years later when she confessed to me at a cocktail party that her physician husband, an orthopedist of all things, diagnosed her lingering sore finger as a broken digit.
But through it all, there have been many memorable and happy moments. Most of those involve the joy of giving people their first ride in a balloon. Others are spectacular flights over valleys, hills and rivers on early mornings above the unparalleled New Mexico landscape. I’ll post my thoughts on some of those memories later. But some of my recollections are downright funny. Here’s one.
When I was completing my training in the late 1980s to become a certified commercial pilot, my instructor required me to conduct several “on the edge” flights to handle emergency situations and unusual weather conditions. Most of those flight operations were done on Albuquerque’s West Mesa, where, at the time, the terrain and skies were wide open to make sure you couldn’t get into too much trouble.
On one of the flights, my instructor wanted me to test the balloon’s performance at maximum load weight while doing low level contour ground tracking. Ground tracking, in the right place, is one of my favorite things to do in a balloon. You fly 10-15 feet above the terrain, preferably at a fast clip, and adjust your altitude to accommodate deviations in landscape, vegetation and other objects while zooming along just above the earth. The sensation you get is, that because you’re so close to the ground and you are moving at the speed of the wind, the earth is just rolling toward you while you are stationary in the air. I don’t think I can describe it in any more understandable terms, but those who have done it will know how thrilling it feels.
Anyway, on this particular fall day on the West Mesa, we were zipping along just above low hills and ridges, dodging cedars and other desert bushes. We had dipped into an arroyo just ahead of a major ridge, which was so high that the top of my balloon was below the crest of it. When we successfully cleared the ridge, we spotted an unusual gathering of horses, humans and dogs. The men and women were riding on beautiful horses. All riders on horses were dressed in bright red velvet coats, black helmets, tan or white riding breeches and polished black boots. The dogs, milling around the horses, were all hounds of various breeds, ready to begin a chase. Was it a time warp and we were suddenly on the set of Downton Abbey? NO, IT WAS A FOX HUNT! IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE ON THE REMOTE WEST MESA OF ALBUQUERQUE!
As soon as we had topped the ridge, the dogs suddenly noticed us. A baying sound from the dogs, as loud as anything I’ve heard before, erupted from below. Dogs are particularly sensitive to the high frequency noises produced by a balloon burner, and when it is emitted by a very large object floating in the sky and moving toward you, you can imagine how the dogs reacted. It was utter pandemonium. The leader of the hunt began blowing his hunting horn to try to regroup the dogs, but they would have none of it. Ear splitting baying, continuing blasts from the hunter horn and shrieks from humans erupted.
Observing the unexpected chaos on the ground, we tried to fly on and not interrupt the activity. But it was impossible to stop the pandemonium. Those of us in the basket of the balloon began laughing so hard at the totally unexpected sight that we couldn’t control ourselves. As the pilot, I had a hard time maintaining my focus, and I think we accidentally smacked into the ground a couple of times before I regained full control and flew far enough away to allow the hunt to continue. As we drifted on, we could still hear sounds of the hunt horn blaring, dogs baying and human voices yelling to try to refocus the hounds.
I’m not sure if the hunt (for a coyote, as I understand it) was successful. Our flight ended with a safe landing and we all had a great memory. I’m sure the fox (or coyote) hunters found it just as memorable. I’m almost certain that the coyote got away safely and thanked me for our intrusion.
I’m attaching a link to the organization, Juan Tomas Hounds, which I think organizes these fox (coyote) hunting events in New Mexico.
The thing I noted in the organization’s website is that coyotes are usually much faster than the dogs or horses that chase them and so I assume most of the critters get away safely. (I hope so). And in the end, fox hunting, New Mexico style, much like ballooning, is just a fun and unusual way to “get out there” with friends. Our two groups would probably have a great tailgate together. And it’s one more reason “Why I Love New Mexico.”