My last day at Sun ‘n Fun was Saturday. And what a day it was. It might be that my colleagues here at Flying, who, between them, have thousands of hours logged in fancier airplanes, many type ratings under there belts and incredible wealth of knowledge about flying — heights, granted, that I will never be able to achieve in my lifetime since my re-entry into aviation has come at mid life — chuckle at my eagerness and enthusiasm for the small stuff. Heck, if they didn’t come in their own airplanes, they could get a ride home from Sun n Fun in a CJ4! Again, an envious status I humbly acknowledge that is out of my reach. That said, in many ways, it’s probably a good guess I’m closer to the average person interested in aviation in that I’m easily thrilled with the simple things.
Case in point: During the week of Sun 'n Fun 2010, I had some pretty cool adventures, two of which I had never experienced, and one of which I had, but with, let’s say, some new modifications. I’ve already blogged about my Aventura seaplane flight at Splash In at Fantasy of Flight and what a kick that was. But on Saturday, I added to the list, first with participation in the annual Sun ‘n Fun hot air balloon sunrise launch and competition and then a ride in a Waco. What a job!
Ironically, the opportunity to be a part of the sunrise hot air balloon launch and competition stemmed from the seaplane ride. The gentleman pilot Travis Jay had taken up before me was veteran balloonist, Adam Carusone of Guru Balloon (guruballoon.com) based out of Winter Park, Florida. He and Bonnier Staff Photographer Jon Whittle had started chatting while I was “splashing in and out of the water” and I joined in on the convo when I got back to land. One thing led to another as it does in these circles. It’s contagious, the thrill of flight — no matter how you propel yourself through the air (or where you land, for that matter).
So there I was at 6 a.m., at the FAA building at Linder Regional, sitting in a briefing for balloon pilots (or LTA pilots…I apologize in advance if I miss some of the proper terminology). There were to be 27 hot air balloons launching that morning to compete in a Hare and Hound Competition. Winds were the focus of WX briefer that morning…calm/variable for the launch site, with up to 15-25 kts at different altitudes. Other than that it was “Have Fun!” And off we went. A Hare and Hound Competition consists of all participating balloons, or Hounds, following a lead balloon, or Hare, to a target point chosen and known only by the Hare. Once the lead balloon chooses a spot and lands, the crew places a giant X on the ground. It’s this X that all other balloons are to target with a mightily throw of a beanbag after getting as close as possible without touching down (or hitting anything, like electrical wires or buildings). The beanbag that lands closest is the winner.
Preparing to for launch for the competition can be tricky. If you get off the ground or even start your fan to inflate your balloon before the Hare does, you’re disqualified. We had launched about 4 or 5 balloons behind our quarry, and Adam’s goal was to stay low or near the altitude of the Hare and chase at a mild pace so as to not bypass him. During the course of our chase, we ascended to no more than 200 or so feet and at point of beanbag launch descended to around 80.
During the chase, which just by the competition’s name seems like it would be noisy and chaotic, I couldn’t help but feel a quiet awe. Here I was, floating silently (in between the trance-breaking blasts of heat) through the air, with a bird’s eye view of the homes that were still quiet, a pasture where a herd of horses was running, probably to the morning feeding, and strawberry fields with workers picking the fruit from laden plants during the sunrise hour. Adam needed to gain altitude and/or maneuver the balloon a certain direction between the wind layers to keep us on proper course with the Hare. The sensations you feel are ever so subtle, probably non-existent to some. Though only definitely perceptible on the variometer (similar to a VSI), I could sense our ascents after the 15 -second or more lag between the heat blasts Adam delivered from the propane valve to coax the balloon higher at appropriate times. But not the descents when Adam tugged the chord to release heat so we could near our target. The place our Hare chose was not easy. In fact some balloons bypassed it completely. As we neared it, I handed Adam the beanbag and he heaved it overboard on a course that seemed right on target…but for the surface wind that held it back well away from the X. It was a good effort.
The focus of reaching the Hare’s target was intense. Once we launched the beanbag, it was time to search for a landing place. Adam was familiar with the lay of the land, but we were somewhat at the mercy of the changing wind layers so we had to keep adapting. The chase team had us insight and followed us at our whim. One pasture looked like a winner until we saw a bull roaming about and the chase team informed us that the gate was locked. Once Mother Nature gave us a window to land that concurred with a clearing devoid of hazardous objects, we finally put down in a small field just beyond some two-story condos (I’m sure the folks who I noticed having early morning coffee on their patios were surprised by our sudden, stealth appearance! And if I were Santa Claus, I might think the balloon is not such a bad way to get on someone’s roof.)
Right after we passed over the condo roofs, Adam timed the descent perfectly. We bumped along about 50 feet or so before coming to a stop, laying the wicker basket on its side. The chase team pulled up right after we landed and so they weren’t in place when we landed. As a result, Adam had to immediately get out and lay the balloon down because the winds decided to pick up! Charged with pulling in the envelope chord, I decide to get completely out of the basket in the event, though unlikely, things got out of hand. I would be like that kid who got whisked away in a balloon on his own, though this time for real!
The team packed up in about 20 minutes. All in all, the time in the air was about 40 minutes or so and what a ride it was. It’s like walking through the air on air…none of the physical sensations when flying in an airplane, for obvious reasons. It's peaceful at the same time as exhilarating. This was like no chasing of a hare I could have ever imagined.