There Sure are a Lot of Gloves in Ballooning

Hot air ballooning is the oldest form of human flight, it’s simple and graceful, and remains unique in the world of aviation. I’ve learned a huge amount in my last two and a half weeks in hot air balloon school here in Albuquerque. I still have a lot to learn, and I’ve been lucky to meet a lot of balloon pilots and crew bubbling with passion and knowledge. During my time here, my mother and aunt came out to visit, and my mom was able to see me fly and practice and learn more about ballooning as well. Hot air balloon school in 3 weeks is essentially a constant exam, so when my mom came out, I couldn’t help but expound the details and intricacies of hot air balloon systems, weather, history, aviation regulations, all the information I was desperately cramming into my head.

My family and I all went to the Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, and learned even more about ballooning including hot air, gas, airships, and more. My mother loves museums, she loves them, and will frequently reiterate facts and trivia she recently discovered, knowing full well I was just there with her. While I was busy in balloon school, she visited the Turquoise Museum in Old Town Albuquerque, which resulted in me learning more about turquoise than I ever wanted to know, vicariously through my mother’s exuberant turquoise fascination. After a few days it was time for my mom to go home, and return from her vacation to the daily grind as a 2nd grade teacher, where I’m sure she has already told her helpless pupils way too much about turquoise. Before we parted ways she told me how proud of me she was, blah blah… and that she learned “quite a bit about ballooning”, and that “there sure are a lot of gloves when you’re hot air ballooning.”

I was mildly stunned. After regaling me with turquoise tales, and listening to all my captivating facts and stories about hot air balloons, her main takeaway after her visit was, that there sure were a lot of gloves involved in ballooning. In some ways I felt that I had failed to instill in her the passion that I have about balloons, but I then realized that not everyone is probably as seriously stoked about balloons as I am. My mom has her own interests and pursuits, and who am I to force my partisanship on anyone? Thinking about this brought up an acute realization: there are a lot of gloves in ballooning.

Today in fact, while at Dan’s Boots and Saddles in Albuquerque (which I highly recommend for all your western wear, boots, saddles, feed and supply needs while in the greater Albuquerque area), I bought another dang pair of gloves! Well, my mom is smarter than I am. The pilot and crew all need gloves, inflating, flying, deflating, refueling; gloves are essential, if you want to keep using your hands that is. There are a lot of ropes to handle, fire, and liquid propane that could instantly freeze your hands off. Gloves are really important. Gloves wear out quickly, and often don’t fit properly. Gloves that have a thumb or finger that’s too big are awful and frustrating and even dangerous. Leather is the mandatory material, and they’re a pretty substantial topic of conversation amongst both balloon pilots and crew. Luckily gloves are relatively cheap, and there are usually lots of extra pairs lying around.

However, borrowing a pair of gloves may be borderline sacrilegious, but gloves are a necessary and integral part of ballooning. A good pair of gloves is invaluable, a pair that fits well, keeps your hands warm, remains flexible, pliable, and lets you accomplish the tasks necessary for a good flight. And there isn’t one single pair that will accomplish all of these tasks, multiple pairs of gloves are unavoidable throughout the year. And a good pair of gloves is like a good pair of jeans, you’ve gotta try em on to see if they fit, you can’t just order your size online and expect them to work out. So the next time you’re out ballooning, make sure you’ve got the right pair of gloves.

Green Chile for Breakfast

Apparently New Mexico is very proud, and somewhat defensive, of New Mexican food. How this is different than regular Mexican food is still not clear to me, other than Green Chile. I’ve had chile that is green in color before, usually it’s been one of the more mild choices on the assortment of chiles and/or salsas available to add to my main entree. However, these green salsa alternatives were NOT New Mexican “Green Chile”, I became aware of this my first day in Albuquerque. Most restaurants here have their own version or recipe of Green Chile, often ranging on the spiciness scale from hot to way too hot, but always delicious.

Green Chile does, however transcend the Mexican food genre, and I’ve found Green Chile in nearly every geographical food category I’ve had while in New Mexico, with the exception of Asian cuisine. But that is probably only due to the fact that I haven’t gone to too many Asian restaurants. Green Chile seems to be prevalent in all foods in New Mexico: the famous Green Chile Burger from Blake’s Lotaburger, or the Green Chile Alfredo Sauce at an Italian restaurant I went to recently, Green Chile Quesadillas and Green Chile loaded potato skins, Green Chile soup, and I begin to think of the scene in Forrest Gump when Bubba is describing the wide variety of culinary uses for shrimp.

I don’t actually care to look into it, but I’m sure there are Green Chile contests and parades, awards, it’s probably the New Mexico State Fruit. Fortunately Green Chile is really good, and I have found myself ordering a lot of it. Usually a restaurant gives you a choice: Red and/or Green Chile, I get both cause I like the colors on my plate, but the Green is generally the better tasting and spicier of the two. Or if a restaurant is rumored to have really spicy Green Chile, it’s always a good idea to get it on the side, and utilize accordingly. Other than Green Chile, New Mexican food still has yet to stand out in any other way. Although talking with long-time ‘New Mexican’ residents, they don’t generally feel comfortable eating other Mexican or Latin American cuisine outside of New Mexico, because it’s not New Mexican food. Perhaps if I lived here for several more years or decades I could figure out the nuances of the New Mexican palette, but I’m not sure this place is quite for me.

So what does this have to do with hot air balloons? Well not much really, but breakfast is a big deal in the world of ballooning, and there are a lot of hot air balloon people in Albuquerque, and there’s a lot of Green Chile in Albuquerque breakfast establishments. Hot air ballooning often requires pilots and crew to get up relatively early, before sunrise. Pilots and crew need to meet up, go to the launch site, set up, launch, fly, chase, land, pack up, celebrate, relax, bullshit, and such. This could take anywhere from 3 to 5 hours or more depending on circumstances, flying time, weather conditions, landing site, bullshitting, etc. And by the time everything is packed up and ready to go, everyone is hungry. While champagne is delicious, it’s no breakfast burrito doused in Red and Green Chile.

Breakfast is the important time when pilots and crew can relax and talk about the flight, and other fascinating topics like New Mexican cuisine. Also, in a place like Albuquerque where there are lots of balloon pilots, they often frequent the local circuit of breakfast joints, so it’s a time to catch up with other pilots in the area. I arrived for my flight training right after the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which is nine days of events and attracts pilots from all over the U.S. and the world. Right now, the most common topic of conversation at the moment between local pilots at a local breakfast establishment is the Fiesta: “How did Fiesta go for you?” “Did you have a good Fiesta?” “I haven’t seen you since before Fiesta!” Judging from this banter, I assume that all people say in the preceding days to the Balloon Fiesta, is something like: “You gettin ready for Fiesta?” “What balloon are you gonna fly in Fiesta?” “When’s the special shapes event going to be this year?”

Fiesta is a really big deal in Albuquerque. And breakfast is a big deal for balloonists. And Green Chile is damn tasty.

Aloft: Spit and Shaving Cream

Today marks the 12th day flying during my time here in hot air balloon school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Today also marks my first solo flight as a student pilot. Today is Halloween, should be a pretty easy date to remember. I’ve been in the Albuquerque area, the suburb of Rio Rancho to be specific, about two weeks now. I’ve spent almost every morning in flight school, learning about and practicing how to fly hot air balloons; every morning with the exception of a couple windy days that unfortunately grounded us. The daytime has consisted of eating delicious breakfast meals, followed by what is called ground school, or the book learnin part. Thus far, it’s been a thoroughly exhausting, but extremely rewarding, experience.

Having learned a great deal of things about hot air balloons, flying, weather, micro-meteorology, and more, there are a few things that stick out. Aloft is one of those things. Particularly winds aloft. Balloonists are constantly checking the winds aloft, from what direction and how fast, typically within the first few thousand feet above the ground. There are current weather reports, weather forecasts, indexes and models, that give one an idea and a small clue about what the heck is going on up above the ground in any given place. The ideal source for determining winds aloft, right before a flight however, is the pibal. This is a contraction of pilot balloon, which is usually a helium filled party balloon, hopefully not blue. The pibal shows us the current wind speeds and directions at various altitudes as it takes off from the launch site, of course this could all change relatively quickly. When launching near other hot air balloons, the balloons themselves become really good pibals as well.

Although it has quickly become apparent to me that nothing is constant, particularly localized weather. There are approximately three and a half gazillion different factors affecting localized meteorology, and mere mortals can only hope to predict and properly identify but a small portion of these ingredients. After initial takeoff, balloonists and pilots in general, are still interested in the winds aloft, as they are constantly shifting and changing. For a hot air balloon, this is the only “steering” available, rising and lowering to catch the different directions available in the layered winds. The balloon being piloted then becomes a sort of pibal, as the pilot can discover which layers of wind, and at which altitudes, are taking them in a particular direction; but there are other important things as well: spit and shaving cream.

Spit and shaving cream are evidently essential to flying and operating a hot air balloon. As you may have noticed, a pilot will lean over the edge of the basket and spit (lots of bubbles are better), or let something else go from the basket. Biodegradable shaving cream is handy because it doesn’t litter like a tissue paper, and it’s lightweight and very visible. As one of these falls back down toward planet Earth, one can clearly see the direction(s) of wind as the spit or shaving cream travels downward until it reaches the ground. This is most important when getting close to landing, but often helpful when trying to find a desired direction of travel. Other helpful indicators for ground level wind direction and speed are flags, tree branches and leaves, smoke or steam from chimneys. After the last two weeks, I’m quite sure I’ll never look at a flag the same way again, and as I drive down streets, my eyes are immediately drawn to anything giving tell tale signs of the wind. In fact, some guy named Beaufort developed a useful scale that uses the aforementioned objects to determine approximate wind speeds. Anyone who is a sailor may already be afflicted with this strange way of looking at objects in relation to the wind, but a balloon pilot has a unique perspective in that wind speed may cancel a flight entirely. The winds aloft determines and usually seem to change a flight plan, all the way from initial launch site selection, to takeoff to landing.

The liberating feeling, the excitement and freedom of flight, the quiet and gentle sailing through the sky that comes from flying in a balloon, is so cruelly chained down by limiting factors like the winds aloft. But really it’s also part of the challenge and the draw for many pilots to ballooning. It is the oldest form of flight, and humankind has achieved significant strides from propelled and powered flight, to greater advances leading to rockets, satellites, space shuttles, putting man on the moon, to the Mars rovers. Ballooning is much more raw and pure, simple and true, and definitely challenging. While we always wish for gentle winds and soft landings, the pursuit and desire of a challenge is never extinguished. Remember to pay attention to all things aloft.

Photo: Airborne Heat

An Introduction and Statement of Purpose

An Introduction: This is to be an account of one – not so humble, not that neutral – hot air balloon aficionado.

Statement of Purpose: Hot Air Balloons are filled with, well, hot air. Hot air and Glory! It is clear there is some magical, phantasmagorical, and rather unique importance of hot air balloons. They are not ho-hum, dull, drab, everyday, or in any way casual; rather they are engrossing in every way imaginable. It is not the intent of the author to strictly write about hot air balloons, but the bizarre and inexplicable allure surrounding them, the passion they instill, and the fortuitous consequences that are the result of the simple association of hot air balloons.

Balloons represent: opportunity, an unbridled freedom where one has no choice but to forego some measures of control, and simply rely on the winds that exist as time passes. This sense of freedom is inevitably transferred to our inner psyche, instilling a sense of pioneer sovereignty and excitement; yet there is also a humbling experience looming in the background, threatening to stifle that exhilaration. This is perhaps an important balance, a dichotomy of the autonomy of being aloft in the air, peppered with the constraints of physics and meteorology.

With that said, I hope that hot air balloons are on your horizon, or better yet, you can stare out at that infinite line between earth and sky, aloft in a wicker basket, sailing on gentle winds, awash with enthusiasm and buoyancy. Image