Up, Up and Away: Hot Air Ballooning as an Extreme Sport

Our hot air balloon pilot looked young enough to be at home watching cartoons. He probably didn’t have a driver’s license. Yet, he busied himself preparing a balloon and a rickety basket for an ascent thousands of feet into the sky.

Hot air balloon companies fly in the early morning calm. No wind could be felt on the morning of our scheduled ride so we figured it would be a peaceful one, maybe even boring. Little did we know that our pilot craved extreme sports.

You can’t really steer a hot air balloon. Altitude is controlled through the propane burner below the balloon opening. Since hot air rises, when the air inside the balloon is heated, the balloon goes up. Any sideways traveling depends on air currents.

When we first took off, we headed sideways and then somehow down into a canyon. The balloon wouldn’t go up fast enough but it did travel sideways pretty quickly. The wicker basket headed right for a canyon wall. Our pilot was in training so after some expert advice from another pilot who looked like he might have a driver’s license, the balloon finally moved up and away from the canyon wall just in time. The basket practically scraped the wall. We could have collected rock samples.

After that, we went up to about 3,000 feet. At least there were no obstacles up there that we could see, just clouds and a few birds. The sensation is more like floating than flying and when you’re that high up, you become very much aware that you’re really just in a basket. There’s not much else between you and the sky.

We floated over desert canyons and a shiny new neighborhood. When it was time to descend by letting air out of the balloon, the pilots figured the neighborhood would be the best place for a landing. We ended up flying in at a steep angle and almost landed on someone’s roof. When we did land, we bounced off a front yard bush and eventually came to rest in the middle of the street. The expert pilot turned to the trainee and said, “Nice use of the bush.”

Luckily, it was a quiet enough residential street and the people who lived there were used to this sort of thing.