Vertigo Rising

Forming the ideal spitball, firing the propane, perfecting the Miss America wave—and other mind-expanding ways to spend your vacation

Ethan Watters

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I’ll tell you right up front: Before my first lesson I had doubts that “piloting” was the right verb to describe flying a balloon. Sure, I knew you could make the thing go up and down—but the word “piloting” implies control over a craft on more than one axis of our three-dimensional world. I suspected “ballasting” might be more appropriate, as in “He did a great job ballasting that balloon over the mountain.”

I don’t admit this preconception to my Balloon Excelsior instructor, Brent Stockwell, as we drive from the Oakland offices to California’s Central Valley for my first lesson. It’s not that I’m afraid of offending him but, having woken up at 3 a.m., I’m having trouble forming coherent sentences of any sort. Here is the cruelest fact of ballooning: The wind is calmest at dawn, and calm wind makes for good, safe flights. If you like to sleep in while on vacation, cross ballooning school off your list.
At 68 years old, Stockwell is fit and full of energy. As he drives 70 miles per hour through the still-dark morning, he reads me the liability waver. I accept the risk of being burned alive or plummeting thousands of feet to my death; I also, apparently, accept the risk of being burned alive while plummeting thousands of feet to my death. The only thing that scares me right now is Stockwell’s penchant for multi-tasking. I’m sure it would take a team of lawyers to figure out whether this liability waiver applies if Stockwell drives off the road while reading it.

An hour later we arrive at a football field in the small town of Patterson. This is not the usual location for a lesson, but Stockwell has given me the option of taking my first flight alongside a half-dozen other balloons as part of Patterson’s Apricot Fiesta, and I can’t resist. The sky is finally light as we unload on the 50-yard line. Stockwell looks at the treetops to take a final gauge of the winds; seven miles per hour or more means a scrubbed flight, but this morning couldn’t be calmer. A couple of balloons have already lifted off and are drifting lethargically overhead.

As we make our preparations, I’m a bit conflicted about Stockwell’s manner of teaching. He is a very precise man, with checklists for his checklists, and he’s picky about everything, including the language of ballooning: “Balloons are not tethered to the ground. Animals are tethered—balloons are moored.” His is not a touchy-feely teaching style, more a military one. But given that we are going to be flying thousands of feet above the hard ground in this apparatus, I guess I prefer to have a stickler for details as my pilot/instructor. No doubt I will be more nervous than I already am if Stockwell had a New Age attitude toward this lesson. (“Well, Ethan, I usually put that linchpin in the other way, but let’s try it your way this time.”)

One of the appealing things about ballooning school (and ballooning in general) is that no matter how many checklists you have, the process of getting into the air is pretty simple and quick: With only five lessons and eight to ten hours of flight, you can qualify for a pilot’s license. Stockwell blows up the ripstop nylon “envelope” with a powerful fan that inflates it into the shape of a beached whale, and then uses the propane heater to put it all the way up. When we get into the basket, he hits the heater a couple more times and we begin to rise gently. A small crowd of Pattersonians gives a sleepy cheer as we drift southward toward the end zone. We clear the goalposts with ease and this humble farming town, with its tract homes and orchards, is revealed to us.

About 200 feet off the ground, Stockwell lets me take over the controls, or I should say control, since there is only really one switch to hit: the brass valve handle that fires the propane burner. Stockwell teaches me the “standard burn,” which entails opening the flame full-throttle for a count of five seconds. After that you wait a bit to see how the balloon will react, because it takes up to half a minute for the hot air you just created to rise to the top of the envelope, where it provides its full lift. As Stockwell gives me the basics of using the burner, I’m distracted by a couple of disconcerting things I’ve noticed about balloon flight. The first is that the railing of the wicker basket seems too low for a man of my height—six feet. Several inches lower than a standard balustrade, the top of the basket hits me mid-butt, leaving the majority of my body weight above the only barrier between me and a quick trip to the top of someone’s carport. If I were to move backward in the basket quickly, it seems to me that the railing would trip me rather than catch me.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that the reptilian portion of my brain is sending a very loud message to the more highly evolved, analytical part: “HOW THE HELL ARE YOU GOING TO GET DOWN FROM HERE?” No use trying to explain physics to a lizard. Once the adrenaline subsides, I realize that this tension is one of the joys of balloon flight. Since the landing, by necessity, comes at the end, there is a lingering suspense to the whole trip. While you can enjoy the ride, you’ll always wondering what the final moment will hold.

“Give me two standard burns,” instructs Stockwell, “and let’s see if we can’t go back to where we started.” I do as he says, and after a rise of another couple hundred feet I discover that we are indeed headed directly back toward the football field. Stockwell explains that on a calm day like this one, an observant and experienced pilot (I realize now that they deserve this title) can find, at different altitudes, gentle wisps of wind moving in almost every direction of the compass. So how do you know which way the wind is blowing at different altitudes?

Well, to check the air currents above, you can release “pi-balls,” basic party balloons filled with helium. To find out what’s going on under the balloon, you spit. To be a really good balloon pilot, in fact, you have to learn how to form a spitball big enough to be seen for a couple thousand feet. Here’s what I learned: Snot-filled loogies fall too quickly to be of much use. What you really want is a puffy white ball a half-inch in diameter and formed of equal parts saliva and air bubbles. This is best created by squishing the fluid in your mouth rapidly back and forth through your front teeth. Actually, you don’t have to be in a balloon to practice this skill—you can do it anywhere. You can, for instance, try it right now as you are reading this article. Go ahead, see if you have the right stuff.

Useful as it is, I must say having a reason to spit off the balloon deeply appeals to my inner teenager. Watching me form one perfect spitball after another, Stockwell concedes that I am a natural at this aspect of ballooning, maybe the best he’s ever seen. Then he suggests I’m so good that I could stop practicing. Stockwell hints that in a pinch other bodily fluids might be used to learn wind direction. These methods are only taught in advanced classes, however, and are not recommended in populated areas with a high percentage of resident rifle ownership.

The other piloting skill I excel at is waving. According to Stockwell, waving to those you fly over is both the sacred duty of a balloon pilot and a way of engendering goodwill, for you never know whose back field you may someday have to land in. As we fly over Patterson this aspect of the sport takes up the majority of our time, which is not a problem because there is not much else to do. Here’s some advice on waving so you’ll be ahead of the game if you ever find yourself in a balloon. Always remember that the lowly people on the ground know they are waving at you, but they don’t know that you are waving at them specifically. Because of this possible confusion, it helps if you match the style of someone’s wave so that the person on the ground understands you’re communicating just with him or her.
So when the woman walking her dog in her nightgown fires us the old screw-in-the-lightbulb wave, I fire that right back at her. When a kid on a trampoline gives me a left-handed-window-washer, I do that too. There’s a caution here, unless you are extremely comfortable in a balloon basket (see “railing height” as mentioned earlier): Be careful not to mimic someone jumping up and down and waving wildly with both hands. Also, be aware that sound travels downward very efficiently, so don’t, as you smile and wave, say something like, “Look at those poor white-trash sons of bitches drinking beer in their backyards,” as the people below are likely to get a mixed message.

After about an hour we feel that we have given the people of Patterson a good enough show, and we find a current of breeze that takes us south toward the local airport. Stockwell has a friendly bet with another balloon pilot that he can land closer to a triangle of grass between two runways. Outside of town we do a little bit of “contour flying”, which means skimming along the ground and over trees. I am not very good at this, because with the delayed reaction of the balloon to the burns, I tend to panic, fire the burner too long, and send us in big looping arcs over the farmland. Stockwell takes over at the end to try to best his friend, who has already landed 50 yards off the mark. The draft at 100 feet that Stockwell has expected would swing us to the right doesn’t materialize, and we fly left of the target, coming in second in a competition of two. Instead of landing on the grassy field, we hit, harder than Stockwell would have liked, on the tarmac of the airstrip.

Stockwell unleashes a Tourettes-like torrent of curses as we sand a quarter-inch off the bottom of the basket, dragging for ten yards before coming to a stop. He cools down the balloon, and concedes that any landing you walk away from is a good landing. As we wait for our ground crew to find us, he puts me to work rolling up the envelope. Halfway through, he alerts me to a group of farm workers driving by and reminds me of the first rule of ballooning.

“Wave at ’em,” Stockwell insists. “You never know when they’re going to rescue your ass.”

Getting There

With only eight to ten hours of flight time necessary for an airman certificate, you too can learn to avoid electric wires with the best of them. Balloon Excelsior can have you flying solo and ready to pass your knowledge and flight tests in about a week (in clear summer weather—count on two weeks in winter). Established in 1969, Balloon Excelsior is the oldest FAA-approved balloon school in the United States. The tuition of $2,100 gets you up to ten flights, depending on how fast you learn. A one-hour lesson costs $300. Contact: 51.261.4222;

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