The morning began very early as we made our way to the field; the time was "Oh Dark Thirty." I was going to wait for Tom to arrive so I could volunteer to be on a crew with him. However, by the time we got to the field I found that Tom was already on the field. Shortly after arriving we heard Tom and Kevin on the handheld radio. Kevin and Tina were located at the place where a friend of theirs would be launching a balloon. Tom had volunteered to be a crew member, so he was moving toward the launch point for "his" balloon.
Kay and I found Tom while Nora was trying to find Kevin and Tina. They ultimately were able to talk-her-in to their location. Tom told me the name of the pilot and the number of the balloon he would crew with. So, I found my way back up to the crew headquarters. Unfortunately, I found that the balloon Tom was with now had a complete crew. I quickly returned to where Tom and Kay were located on the other end of the field. I figured that if I could not be part of the crew, I would get a lot of photos of Tom as he performed his tasks.
The sun was about to come up giving the sky a familiar glow. When I got back to Tom's location, Tom said that his balloon was a no-show. A pilot, a couple of positions over, was looking for a launch crew and chase team. Tom and I both volunteered on the spot. Tom and I moved over to a pickup truck with balloon gear in the back.
We would be working with the balloon pilot Jerry Holmes and his assistant Steve. They would be launching a balloon named "Incognito." Jerry asked if either of us had any experience. We both told him about watching Gary Moore showing us how it all worked even though we only watched. We knew enough of the special jargon that we would be able to do an okay job.
Jerry told us that we would be launching in the second flight. As a result, we would be able to watch a lot of the activity on the field. Jerry and Steve spent some time explaining what our roles would be and how we should do our jobs. I was very impressed with how friendly balloon people seem to be and how sharing they are with the fun of ballooning.
Jerry had been off somewhere. When he returned he said that we had permission to launch. So, now it was time to begin. First Tom and I each picked out a pair of leather gloves that would be needed for the task at hand. Next the basket was taken from the back of the pickup truck. The basket is heavy, so we all grabbed handles built into the structure and tilted it, allowing the basket to slide to the ground.
Steve showed us how to unroll the balloon envelope out onto the ground. He then gave us instructions for the proper way to spread the envelope so as to not tear the fabric. Then we were given instructions on how to hold the balloon during the cold inflation stage. Tom would be on one side of the envelope and I would hold open the other side.
Tom and I got into position as the cold inflation fan was started. It didn't take long for the fan to get up to speed producing what seemed like a small gale aimed at the open balloon envelope. We were holding the bottom of the envelope open by stepping on a couple of lines on the ground while supporting more lines on our shoulders. The pull on the ropes slowly increased as the balloon inflated with cold air.
The basket was lying on its side while the balloon filled as much as possible with cold air. Jerry fired up the propane burner and almost immediately the balloon began to lift. Jerry had given Kay instructions about how to shut off the fan and back it out of the way. So, she was now pressed into service doing the same thing I had done the day before with a different balloon.
As the balloon began rising toward vertical, Tom and I shifted positions to help Jerry to began tilting the basket to the upright position. It was good that the basket had a rope connected to the rear of the pickup truck as the balloon began tugging gently on the tether. When Jerry said, "Weight on" Tom and I jumped on the side of the basket to hold it down. Jerry told us that the balloon had a lifting power of as much as 1500 pounds.
As the balloon fought our attempt at keeping it earthbound, we waited for a Zebra to come by to give us clearance to launch. Fortunately we didn't have to wait long to get directions for liftoff. With a bit of difficulty, it took both Tom and I, working together, to pull the pin that held the basket to the tether. Finally the basket was free and it began to gently drag across the grass as Jerry turned up the heat from the burner.
The basket slid on the grass for a short distance when we felt the point of "Freedom" occur. Suddenly the basket was moving effortlessly just an inch or so above the ground. With a loud whooshing sound, Incognito was airborne and on its way up to the "Box." There was a feeling of accomplishment as we watched "our" balloon float up into the crowded sky.
With the Incognito in the air we had time to look around and enjoy the view all around us. The plan was to wait near the launch site so we could retrieve the balloon as it landed on the field after a flight time of up to two hours. Unfortunately we would have to change our plan.
I looked up to see how "Incognito" was doing. The box had been working all morning and our balloon had made its way to the south end of the box, rose to the higher level and was returning to the north. However, I noticed that the balloon was off to the west of the field. The box was beginning to fail. The Incognito was about half way back when it stalled in the sky and slowly reversed direction.
Steve received a message on the radio from Jerry. We would have to chase the balloon until Jerry could find a place to land. Steve told all of us to climb into the truck and we would go to find the balloon. Kay and Nora said they would stay behind and wait for us to return. Steve talked both Kay and Nora into becoming part of the "Incognito Chase Team."
What we were about to be a part of was very exciting. Steve was driving with one eye on the road and the other on the sky. He was weaving through the crowded roadways as he followed Jerry's directions on the radio. Steve had one hand on the steering wheel, in his other hand was a two-way radio, and he shifted gears with his other hand wait how did he do that? Steve was like a driving juggler as his hands were busy doing so many things that were needed to get the vehicle from the field to wherever the balloon would come down.
Jerry kept updating his location to Steve, but we were unable to see any of the landmarks Jerry was calling out. Steve determined that we had passed the location where Incognito was coming down. Jerry then said that he had landed in a vacant lot next to a sound wall across from a new housing development. All the buildings we could see were older structures.
Then Steve saw a sound wall through some trees about a block over from the route we were driving. With a couple of false starts, we found our way up a small slope, gunned the engine to get across a dry creek bed and up the other side where Steve found a gap in the soundwall.
The view before us was that of a basket sitting on the ground with the balloon envelope lying out on the ground downwind from the basket. We were given instructions about how to roll up the balloon envelope. This is where everybody had a job to do. First the envelope was bunched up into a long strip. Then we all applied straps around the balloon every few feet.
Kay and Nora were given the job of holding the balloon storage bag open as the rest of the crew brought the balloon envelope to the bag. It was as if we were carrying a colorful, fabric snake on our shoulders while coaxing it into a big bag. Once in the bag, the bagged envelope was put up on the pickup truck. Next we had to get the basket in the truck. We did it, but the basket seemed to have gained weight compared to when we took it off the truck in the morning.
Now we all had to find a way for us to get back to the launch field. There were more in our party than when we took up the chase. Steve and Tom chose to ride in the back of the truck with the balloon gear. The return trip was uneventful as Jerry drove to a back entrance to the balloon field that is open only to balloonists and officials.
I was amazed at the huge scale of the propane-refueling center that we drove by as we entered the fiesta grounds. There were many islands in multiple rows similar to those seen in gas stations. However, the pumps here were dispensing propane rather than the conventional fuels like gasoline or diesel fuel. There is an amazing amount of propane burned at these events. I learned that the fuel is provided at no cost to the balloonists as an incentive to attend the fiesta.
Jerry dropped us off near vendor tents at the far end of the fiesta grounds. We did a little shopping before returning to camp. When we arrived in camp we found out that Tina and Kevin had been given a ride in their friend's balloon. Tina also told us that the big milk-cow shaped balloon came in for a landing over our motorhomes missing them by only inches.
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