One of the reasons why hot air ballooning is such an adventure is that you almost never know exactly where your flight will end. You may have a general idea of an area where you might land, but subtle variations in wind direction, changes in winds at different altitudes during your flight, landing site restrictions and other factors completely outside of your control make predicting a precise landing spot virtually impossible.
I’ve landed in many interesting places over the years. I’ve touched down several times on residential streets in the middle of a surprised neighborhood. A couple of times I ended up way out in the middle of nowhere in the deserts west of Albuquerque and Las Cruces. Other landing sites included crowded parking lots, gated and fenced in plots of land, city parks, river levee roads with locked gates, and a pasture where I was greeted by a friendly herd of cattle apparently thinking my wicker basket was a giant bale of hay for them. I even landed in a narrow mobile home lot with a giant electrical substation looming in front of me — my scariest landing by far. (Maybe more on that in a later blog.)
But as we say in ballooning, it’s all a matter of simple math: If the number of landings equal the number of takeoffs, you’ve had a good flight. So far, all of mine have been good flights.
On only two occasions have I managed to land back almost where I launched. Both were at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta when mostly predictable “Albuquerque Box” winds allowed me to land within a few spaces of my original launch site. It was a challenge for me to work the wind currents to “get back home,” but it was especially boring for the crew who just waited around the launch field during my entire flight for me to come back.
So it’s not surprising that newcomers to ballooning don’t understand how little control you have over where you go in a hot air balloon. I try to explain my general flight plan, but most don’t seem to understand that I can’t just point the aircraft in a specific direction and end up there.
That was made especially evident to me one year when I flew one of the Wells Fargo balloons at Balloon Fiesta. I had been assigned the duty of flying a couple of passengers who had won a bid for a balloon flight for a charity event (something we did quite frequently). The passengers arrived and as usual, it was one of those mornings where the winds were slow and we were in a “hurry up and wait” mode. I told my passengers that because of the launch delays, I thought they had time to go to vendor’s row to look around before coming back to the launch site to begin their hot air balloon adventure.
Well, things changed quickly and I was suddenly confronted by a launch director who advised me that I needed to get into the air quickly to avoid slowing down the launch process for many other balloons nearby. My passengers were nowhere in sight, so I grabbed a couple of extra crew members who had not been able to fly at Fiesta before and put them in the basket. We launched on time and had a great 45 minute flight — but landed somewhere far away from the field.
When I came back to the field after packing up the balloon, we returned to our launch site to find my two original passengers standing around looking bewildered. I apologized profusely for not being able to give them a ride when one of them responded:
“Oh, we saw you launch and fly away. We just thought you’d eventually fly back here and land to take us on our ride, so we just waited around.”
So now, when I’m flying new-to-ballooning passengers, I try to make clear that the unpredictable landing site is part of the thrill of the experience. And maybe we’ll find another herd of welcoming cows to really make it a really fun day.