By Greg Brown
Kaleidoscopic dragons awakened all around, gargantuan creatures inhaling and rising from the earth, their fiery breathing filling the air. I gripped our basket as pilot Mary Young activated our own burner in harmony with those neighbors.
Three of us perched precariously in the tiny woven gondola barely reaching our hips. A colorful bag of hot air rose gracefully above our heads, then slowly coaxed us from the ground. With us rose other balloons, a great herd of beasts struggling from rest. Slowly we drifted toward the adjacent pond.
“We’ll skim the water, just for the sport of it…” Mary said.
It seemed so alien—drifting slowly over a body of water at an altitude of only inches, and in fact descending to touch the surface. And descending, and descending…
With water filtering through the weave of our basket, I wondered if I should’ve worn other shoes, not anticipating that balloon flight would wet the new ones I was wearing. As shoelaces submerged, I noted determination on Mary’s face, her relaxed touch changing to firm grip as she activated the burner. Water climbed our ankles as we slogged into the pond, defying the best efforts of the burner and our collective will to rise.
Suddenly the murmur of spectators became a roar, with the crowd on shore shouting and pointing at us.
“Look out!” came cries through the uproar. “The Fountain!”
I then realized that more than our impending immersion was attracting attention. Although we’d finally arrested our submarine descent and begun rising skyward, directly ahead in our path lay “The Fountain.”
Now this particular fountain is no run-of-the-mill peeing statue. Arguably tallest in the world, the huge spout pumps vertically some 550 feet aloft from the surface of its pond.
Seriously, this fountain is so big it’s a reporting point for Phoenix Class B airspace—check your sectional chart—and by the time I turned around to see what all those fingers were pointing at, we were headed directly for it, at the grand elevation of five feet.
The crowd’s roar grew deafening as we approached the fountain, then fell dead silent as all eyes focused on our hapless craft. Although now rapidly rising, we’d clearly be unable to outclimb the water.
At the last moment of this slow-motion crisis, our balloon drifted ever so slightly to the right, skimming closely enough for a gentle spray to cool our faces as the craft rose briskly to join company with its heaving-and-sighing brethren.
“Wonder why they don’t turn that fountain off for the ascension,” said Mary, in what seemed the understatement of the year. “Didn’t mean to skim quite that low either.”
A hint of a smile crossed her face. (The following year a balloon did indeed drift into the forceful waters of the fountain; ignominiously deflated, it dumped its passengers into the reclaimed effluent of Fountain Lake. Only ego-based injuries accompanied the soaking.)
Drifting low and silently above homes and desert, we could now absorb the majesty of balloon flight; regally we received waves of smiling spectators from their backyards, while voices eerily joined us from unseen conversations below. We drifted slowly southward, then southwest.
“Good thing we’re headed in this direction,” observed Mary. “Northeast is too rugged for chase vehicles to get us out. And we’ll avoid Phoenix with its air traffic and lack of landing sites.”
Neighboring balloons drifted in synchrony nearby—all part of the same air mass, they departed our company only gradually as pilots sought differing winds at other altitudes. Ours was a distance race, to see who could travel farthest from the starting point.
“I don’t care about winning,” said Mary, as we watched the group dissipate. “We’ll just stay low and enjoy the ride.”
Now over open desert, we observed deer and coyotes fleeing our great shadow, their progress through the brush audibly clear. The only setback—I couldn’t bring myself to lean backwards out of the basket to photograph my companions against their stunning backdrop of balloons, mountains and desert.
Our reverie was broken by squawks from Mary’s handheld radio.
“Sheriff’s deputy just came by,” said a staticky voice from our ground crew. “He told us the Salt River tribe has denied permission to land on their reservation. I guess the race organizers forgot to ask ahead of time.”
“Oh goody,” said Mary, “Where is it?”
“This is all reservation,” I observed, with a sweep of the hand.
The only obvious option was to head west for the community college campus. That wasn’t, unfortunately, where our wind was taking us.
Mary then cheered us with tales of hapless aeronauts greeted by guns, jail and fines for landing on valuable crops, in exclusive neighborhoods, and of course, on Indian reservations. To escape visions of a night in a tribal jail, we concentrated instead on surrealistic views of hue-saturated balloons dancing across brown desert and green fields.
Ultimately, Mary put down on the reservation anyway, coordinating with our chase crew to minimize waiting time on the ground. We dragged and bumped to a stop in an open field, and escaped with no more than the watchful excitement of young Native American neighbors.
My hour-and-a-half initiation into the mystical world of hot-air ballooning was over. Low and silent passage over the ground had granted perceptions that pass one by in an airplane—smelling the smells, hearing the sounds, and sensing the lives of those below. New perspectives of flight had revealed themselves at a groundspeed of 10 miles per hour.
After refueling our tanks with propane at a nearby gas station, we returned to Fountain Park to indulge ourselves in a traditional celebratory brunch, including dousing of first-flight neophytes with champagne. Bubbly dripping from my nose, I pondered new meaning, and new excitement brought to me this day, for the unceasingly fascinating act of “flying.”
Author of numerous books and articles, Greg Brown is a columnist for “AOPA Flight Training” magazine. Read more of his tales in “Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane,” available through your favorite bookstore, pilot shop, or online catalog, and visit [http://www.gregbrownflyingcarpet.com/].