Sometimes travel involves adventures in the air and this is one that is available without leaving North Carolina. In the author’s case, only a drive to Siler City. It is 6:00 A.M. and the crew gathers on a dew covered field to unload a trailer containing a blue tarp covered large wicker basket and a big red canvas bag.
Dragging the bag out on the field, the crew begins to unfurl and lay out a massive orange and yellow nylon structure, seamed with white canvas strips. The large wicker basket, with a leather bottom is also emptied out on the field as are two large fans. The blue tarp cover comes off the basket and inside are two large propane tanks and a burner. Do you remember the Jules Verne book, Around The World in 80 Days? Well, the crew is putting together a hot air balloon, not much different from the one flown by Phileas Fogg in that story – well, maybe more like the one in the movie version.
The crew, at the direction of balloon pilot, Barbara Mckinley, mounts the burner on fiberglass poles above the basket and cables it in place. The basket is turned on it’s side and the author and another crew member hold open the throat of the balloon as the fans fill it with air. A giant nylon bag inflates in front of us as Barbara works to straighten out the material to assure a proper inflation. Once filled with air, the fans are cut off and Barbara fires the burner in short blasts into the interior. The flame blasts by the crew members holding the throat open and, as the air heats, the balloon rises and rights the basket. The Orange Spice rises above us several stories high and the balloon is tethered to a truck and held down by the crew as the radios and GPS are all given a final check (modern technology does have a place here).
Barbara is aboard and signals the author to follow. The wind is calm, warm, and the sun is burning off a ground fog covering the fields in the distance. The author climbs awkwardly into the basket. Barbara fires the burner in short blasts and its roar is one of the few sounds we hear. The balloon rocks on the ground and the tether is released. The balloon rises ever so slightly, then slowly ascends. The green trees rise in rows between layers of white fog and soon the balloon is drifting over the tree tops and farm fields. It glides over a cow herd and they barely notice its passing. A marshy creek is below and more fields and trees. The pilot can guide the balloon up and down using the burner and a line that can open part of the top canopy, but the balloons direction is solely determined by the wind. The balloon crosses a corn field and Barbara lowers the balloon to nearly touch the tops of the green corn stalks.
The Orange Spice glides along and the only sounds are the roar of the burner, an occasional creak of the wicker, a dogs bark or a cows moo below. You are not confined as you would be in an airplane but rather you can feel the fresh air around you and see for miles in every direction. It is an exhilerating experience.
All too soon the Orange Spice begins to descend. It bumps the ground a couple of times as it touches down in a farm field. Barbara radios the crew as they try to follow us in the truck. They find us and proceed to the farmhouse to get permission to come into the field to recover the balloon and its passengers, The farmer and his wife and a collection of dogs come out to watch the giant balloon being taken down. The cows in the neighboring field, on the other hand, decide to ignore the event.
The crew works to fold and roll the balloon and replace it in its canvas bag. The burner is taken down and the rods that hold it go back in their bag. Radios are put back into cases and everything is put back into the trailer. The crew heads off for breakfast.
While Barbara is not a commercial pilot, you can take a short trip to Asheville (Asheville Hot Air Balloons) or Charlotte (Balloons over Charlotte) and go for a flight and the crew will set everything up and provide you with a champagne toast when you touch down, The Carolina Balloon Fest is held in Statesville, this year on October 21-23. Balloons are also a great way to see the sights of the world. You can even pretend your Phileas Fogg and fly over the French countryside.