As warbird pilots attending this particular airshow, my partners entered the wrong cocktail party in their flightsuits and were quickly questioned as to the reason for their attendance there. Before they were allowed to answer, they were immediately handed a beer and taken into the party and the hearts of a very special group of people. Getting to know these folks last year, my partners and I were invited to a very special event of this group.
Each year, at a secret location in Oklahoma (or upstate New York for those wishing to seek them out) this group gathers away from sponsors, political affiliations, and sometimes family to revive and celebrate first and foremost, their joy of flight. This event is known as "Camp Flight" which differs from the fixed wing crowd right away who would probably plan and name a similar event "Hotel Flight." The balloonists camp for a weekend at a location which allows a casual and private atmosphere.
Privacy is critical because the entire camp is awakened at 5:30 each morning with a van rolling through the campsite blowing its horn and playing the "Macerena" dance over its loud speakers. This is Ed Covington (former fixed-wing and glider pilot and the father of Camp Flight) and his wife Jere, calling their minions to wake and prepare for the morning pilots' flight brief. At this hour of the morning, I'm sure some of the campers referred to Ed as "Mother" instead of "Father," but surely in the most tender and loving way.
At the Pilot Brief 45 minutes later, we fixed wing attendees were prepared for the typical airshow briefing. -Extensive weather briefs, alternate field locations, emergency procedures, radio frequencies, FAA waivers, and cocktail party location at the end of the day.
"Father Ed" drives the first
Camp Flight stake.
|Pilots "Leaving Camp"|
Balloon pilots use a mixture of aviation language we all share. And why not? They invented most of it. Balloonists have been flying since the 1700's. Let's review some of the common terms we share:
"Envelope"... Fixed wing pilots like to push out to the edge of the envelope of flight, and sometimes mail checks to their creditors in them. Balloonists pull on the edge of the "envelope" to fill and then fly it.
"Burn" ... Astronauts have a "burn" in space to leave or re-enter orbit. Balloonists have a burn to rise and fall in the air, and to help dry their hair after a Splash-and-Dash on the water.
"Cords" ... Balloonists have Cords that attach the basket to the Envelope while I have Chords that I play on my guitar by the campfire.
"Beer" ... Balloonists use the term "beer" to describe the beverage they consume at the end of the day. Fixed wing pilots use the beverage "beer" to help them, at the end of the day, to remember the incredible feats of flying they accomplished.
Laying aside my fears of being carried aloft by nothing more that an occasional breath of hot air, I took my first balloon flight on a Friday evening in late August. I was amazed that as we began our "burn" that the balloon did not rise. Instead, the earth fell away from me with surprising speed and silence. Over twenty balloons rose together in the hands of pilots controlling the balloons like puppets on the ends of strings of propane. Low to the ground, everything is real as the balloon drifts across the countryside at the speed of wind. But as the balloon gains altitude, the world and time come to a stop. Only by descending and brushing the tops of trees were we allowed to restart the clock.
Being the only fixed wing aircraft at the event (by special dispensation of Father Ed) and a Warbird at that, we gave rides to some of the pilots and crews at Camp Flight to give them a different perspective of flight. At every airshow we go to we are always the slug; -the low and slow bug smasher never taken seriously by the heavy-metal jocks. Now at Camp Flight, we are a winged terror roaring by at 100 mph on the wings of eagles-flying by balloons that look like a picture suspended on a wall.
Later that morning we entered a restaurant where the crews meet to have breakfast. Why were they cheering for us? Was our display of speed so impressive? "No," replied one crew member. "The last one in picks up the check."
Another part of ballooning that is different from fixed wing is the launch and recovery. Balloons need a chase crew to help inflate, launch, and recover the balloon at the final destination. These crews are the unsung heroes of balloon flight. This crew of between four and eight people must work in intense quiet harmony for hours on end chasing the balloon. A balloon pilot is under the impression that his crew is faithfully following him around, worrying where he will land, reviewing maps, charts, checking weather, communicating with the pilot over the radio and ready at a moment's notice to be at the beck and call of the pilot. --I am not here to alter that belief by the pilot in any way. And chase crews, I promise not to give you away!
Time and space do not allow me to relate all that happened this special weekend. Nor will I spoil the initiation by telling you what happens to each person after their first balloon ride, other than to state that we in the fixed wing community have a lot of catching up to do.
If you are lucky enough to be offered a ride in a hot air balloon, don't pass it up. And if you get a chance to engage the pilot of a low flying balloon in a few brief words as they fly by, try to say something just a little more original than: "Where you headed?"
As others see us-Bruno Tschannen mailed Ed Covington a copy of this story he had submitted to a local airplane publication. Bruno and his friend Brad Plumb fly a Fairchild PT-19. Camp Flight is a group of balloonists who gather at a lake in eastern Oklahoma for a weekend of fun ballooning. For the record, a formal FSS weather briefing had been obtained by the balloon pilots. Editor