From Set-Up to Pack-Up

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Arriba-Arriba! Flight prep

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Jean Charles, an amateur balloonist originally from France, discusses what it takes launch a hot air balloon.

Some years ago, I left France and came to live in Florida, which has some very fine ballooning traditions. I find the flying and weather here to be just wonderful.

Ballooning is an early morning sport. Before dawn, we arrive at the launch field in our van. A cup of coffee, perhaps an early morning snack and we're on the road. I always launch from the same field, a wide open space without any trees or powerlines. It is always nice to drive up in the darkness at the beginning of the day -- except for the Florida mosquitoes!

In the pre-dawn darkness, I unpack my balloon with the crew and spread out the envelope on the ground. My crew sets up a fan, which we use to inflate the balloon by blowing into its bottom. I love to watch my balloon inflate this way. Then we rig up the burners, hook up the fuel system, and get the pilot light lit. This is a small flame that is kept burning like in a gas oven, so when you blow the propane burner the gas ignites. We blow the burner to heat the air in the balloon.

By this point, the dawn is finally breaking. By running the fan, the balloon has inflated but now it is down against the ground. We have attached the basket to the lines and now, we fire the burner into the balloon to heat the air inside. As the air heats, the balloon tips upright, pulling against the lines. The noise of the burner is particularly impressive.

Once the balloon is fully upright, I do a final rigging check of the gondola and test my electronics and radio. Then I load the balloon with my supplies for the day, which always includes some light sandwiches, and, though many seem to be ignore this oldest tradition, I always bring a bottle of champagne for the landing -- only French champagne, of course!

Despite being so large, my balloon is actually very light. With propane, it weighs just 700 pounds. Yet it is 85 feet tall and 55 feet wide. All the volume is nothing but hot air. My balloon is blue, white and red, with big vertical stripes.

Once everything is checked out, we're very close to being ready to fly. Using my cell phone, I call the weather service for an update. Earlier that morning, before even coming to the field, I have done a pre-flight plan and gathered as much data as I can about the weather for the day. When you are in a balloon, you have to work with the winds and know the weather very well. If conditions start to detiorate -- we are always most sensitive to high winds and gusts -- we simply don't fly. There is no reason to take chances flying a balloon; you can always fly tomorrow when the weather is better.

I recheck all of the winds at the various altitudes, and make sure there are favorable conditions for the flight. Then we brief the crew -- my crew chief will be on the ground in the van and will "chase" the balloon. Actually, the term "chase" is a bit of an overstatement. The balloon moves along quite slowly, so the chase vehicle has been known to make a few stops, getting breakfast at a drive-through, popping into a coffee shop for a refill, that sort of thing. One day, I remember they actually stopped and had bagels outside in a park and waved at me as I flew over.

Finally, we are ready to go. I do a final pre-flight operations check, making sure that everthing works right, that the pilot light stays lit, that the fuel system is working properly and my electronics are all working perfectly -- particularly my GPS (I am a bit lazy at navigation, I admit, and my new GPS even has a moving map with the roads on it!) and my radio, which I use to talk with the crew chief in the chase van.

We usually take off just within the first hour of sunrise so we have about a three hour flight window. I like flying in the mornings best, but you can have a lot of fun in the late afternoon hours, flying about two hours before sunset. At those times, the air is the most stable and there are no thermals. Florida can get pretty bumpy with thermals as the morning advances. You want smooth air in a balloon.

Then, we climb aboard and I run the burner a bit to get the balloon off the ground. Once we start to rise, I stop blowing the burner and we climb upward in silence. That is the most amazing thing, the silence of it all.

Ballooning is not really that dangerous -- in fact, there are more risks if you are riding in the chase van down below on the roads. Moreoever, ballooning is very accessible. Just open up the phone book and you will be able to find a local operation that offers rides. It is a very affordable, wonderful new experience. And if you get the right winds, you should be able to fly over your own house.

I have just one piece of advice for when you fly -- bring a bottle of French champagne. After all, ballooning was invented in France.