My balloon career launched modestly (sort of) when a delightful, brilliant, eccentric friend named Frank Wood decided he had to have a balloon for fun and to promote his rather outrageous WEBN radio station in Cincinnati. He built it and aired a classical music format until son Beau convinced him that wouldn't "fly" and they degenerated into hard, acid rock. But Frank, an avid pilot, had his way every Sunday morning from 8 until noon, and I'd hang out at the station in Hyde Park Square while he did his four hours of Bartok, Bach and Beethoven. We'd talk about airplanes, addictions, Graeter's vs. Aglemesis ice cream and the joy of living (Frank was a recovering addict and a cancer survivor) while he played music and took phone calls from adoring fans.
He told me he was bringing the balloon to a summer evening party in fashionable Indian Hill so the hosts could score a "first" by offering tethered balloon rides to guests.
"I'll teach you how to run it up and down on a tether and you can play with it as long as you want."
So of course I went, decked out in a strapless Lilly Pulitzer creation. Few women have less business wearing a strapless dress, but they were "in" and it was a time in life when that was important to me. The night was hot and humid and, well fortified with vodka martinis, I hitched up my skirts, climbed into the wicker basket and concentrated on Frank's instructions. Somebody caught the moment on film and, no, I'm not going to let the magazine publish it … arms stretched overhead, face beet-red and twisted in concentration and my Lilly frock down around my waist (underpinnings intact … just).
The FAA was unaware of my notorious balloon debut when it sent me on an all-expense-paid two-week trip to northern Colorado, at a spectacular place right on the Front Range. I would morph from an airplane pilot who couldn't spell Montgolfier to a full-blown, expert, commercial hot-air balloon aeronaut — or so the balloon community in southern Ohio was supposed to believe. Ballooning had "ballooned" in our district, and the nearest FAA inspector full of hot air (ratings) was in Chicago. That he was rarely if ever available for balloon events, surveillances or check rides should have rung a warning bell but, hey, if it's something that launches you into the air, I'm game to try it.
This mission was not without its challenges.
First, there's the altitude thing: Being at 3,000 or 8,000 feet in an airplane is home; being any higher than a couple hundred feet in a balloon basket is downright unnatural, something only a high ironworker might enjoy — an opinion my friend Joe Kittinger, who jumped out of one at 103,000 feet and flew another solo across the Atlantic, finds wildly funny. A course completion requirement was to take this thing to 3,000 feet agl, which I did, huddled in a fetal position on the basket floor, occasionally peering over the rim with one eye. When the little hand on the altimeter said "3" I vented at terminal velocity to the first available piece of Mother Earth, which happened to be inside the fence of a Colorado state penal facility.
Which raises the issue of direction. Sure, I know that balloons ride the wind, they're part of the wind, and getting somewhere specific (like not on the grounds of a prison) means changing altitudes in search of a layer where the winds are blowing the way you want to go … remembering they'll change again as you descend. Well, OK, I know that, but I have this innate pilot's conviction that you go pretty much in the direction you're pointed. But positioning yourself in the balloon basket and concentrating on the direction you want to go is useless because the damn thing rarely wants to go that way. Eventually I caught on to spitting over the side and shooting bursts of foam from cans of shaving cream to try "catching a left" below, or burning to climb to a layer where the wind would take me in a better direction — maybe even back around for another try.
Finally, there's the business of wrestling these things around on the ground. The Raven model (no longer built) weighed 300 pounds empty with two 15-gallon propane burners. It would lift up to eight people, which made it ideal for the tourist business but something of a challenge for a beginner. Laying it out and inflating and then — if you got down with most bones intact — deflating and packing it up at the end was formidable. We were starting out at an elevation 5,000 feet above sea level and, while I'm incredibly strong, 105 pounds goes only so far. Wimping out is not an option, especially with a crew of teenage girls, so I threw myself wholeheartedly into the task and then took myself to the Poudre Valley Hospital, certain that I'd torn every rib loose from my sternum. Several hours, X-rays and a bill for (can you believe) $90 later, I limped back to the motel with the assurance it was plain vanilla bruised ribs and sore muscles.