It’s said that most pilots can sense the smallest nuance of change in the performance or “feel” of their aircraft. Being attuned to these clues usually results in quickly identifying the source of the change so necessary safety measures can be taken, if necessary.
I experienced one of these incidents many years ago while flying my hot air balloon on a ride I had offered to a local newspaper editor and his son.
While hot air balloons are not nearly as complex as fixed-wing or rotor aircraft, they do give the pilot signals when something is not quite right.
When you engage the burner of a hot air balloon, you often feel a bit of a jolt in the basket from the blast of propane-fueled flame. Burners are the incredibly powerful engines of hot air balloons, producing millions of BTUs and enough heat to raise the temperature inside the balloon’s envelope to more than 200 degrees in a matter of a few minutes.
On this particular flight, I could feel a much stronger jolt each time I hit the burner, followed by a quivering sensation on the floor of the basket. My first instinct was to check the rigging between the basket and the envelope, then the fuel system and its various components.
I saw nothing, but continued to feel the sensation. Not quite ready to declare an emergency, I looked around once more and observed my passengers — and there was the problem.
It seems that the younger passenger — probably 10-11 years old — had a fear of heights he had not been aware of until he was flying in an open basket several hundred feet above the ground. Each time I hit the burner, he jumped slightly, then began quivering in his knees until the sense of doom temporarily subsided. I assured him and his father that all was well and that we would land as soon as possible.
With that assurance, the jolt and quivering seemed to subside significantly. After a few more jolts and quivers, we found a nice open field in which we landed safely. I believe the young passenger literally leaped out of the basket upon landing. If he could have done so without embarrassing himself, I’m sure he would have kissed the ground.