I had been crewing for nearly two years when I got the chance to go for my third balloon ride. It was a hot July evening, the Saturday night flight of the local balloon rally in Kansas City. A split-field was called. Local pilots were to fly from the field and out-of- towners were to go out and fly in.
Being local, we the crew assumed that we would be flying from the field. So, while our pilot, Rich, was still in the pilot briefing, we began to rig up the basket and envelope. Rich came back from the briefing, disturbed by the south wind. We all knew that straight north, with crowded suburbs, was a poor direction to go.
Rich made the decision that we were going to drive out south and fly in to the field. He was annoyed by the heat, by the wind, and by the fact that we had already spread the balloon out. Suddenly we became rushed. We took the burner and uprights down, and loosely packed the envelope in its bag. We were drenched with sweat and the balloon wasn't even in the air yet!
Eight of us packed into the van our pilot, four crew, the pilots nephew, his girlfriend, and our sponsor. This overcrowding didn't help ease tensions at all. Along with another team, we drove south and decided to inflate together in the yard of an elementary school.
Inflation was rather tense, too. Rush, rush, rush. There were so many people, it felt to me like I was in the way. Rich stood the balloon up and I hopped in. Our sponsor, a woman photographer, came along as did Rich's nephew's girlfriend.
After all that work we were finally in the air. This didn't seem as much fun as my previous two rides did. Rich was stressed out, and the rest of us were still rather tense, not to mention sweating!
About ten minutes into the flight, the atmosphere in the basket did seem to calm down a little. However, the wind had shifted a little more to the west, so it looked like we were going to miss the field. I began to notice something else. The wind speed had also increased. I sense a growing concern on Rich's face as we descended to begin looking for a landing spot. Everything on the ground seemed to be moving by at a good pace. We were probably doing 12 knots at that point.
We were heading straight for Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base. Rich called them on the aircraft radio to seek permission to land. After obtaining clearance, Rich planned his approach, as it looked like we were bound straight across one of the runways.
We began to pass over the first of two runways, and Rich burned one last time just enough so we wouldn't hit any of the runway lights. Rich told us to hold on and he ripped hard, opting to land in the green space between the two runways.
Ouch! Oh my God! screamed the sponsor as we hit hard. The balloon seemed like it was almost parallel to the ground. We ascended again and hit hard, again. This time we stayed on the ground and dragged to a stop. I was terrified, because I thought our sponsor had broken something. This had all happened so fast.
OK, think straight, I said to myself. Grab the crown line and pull the balloon over. I climbed out of the basket, now on its side, and looked up, only to find that the wind was so strong it had already completely deflated the envelope.
It turned out that our sponsor hadn't broken anything, but had banged her knee hard on one of the tanks because she was holding on to her camera, and not the uprights, the first time we hit.
While I had thought this was going to be just another fun flight, I have since realized that it was a true educational experience. I learned so many things from this one flight.
First, we the crew should never have started setting up the balloon without orders from our pilot. That mistake only added another element of stress to this whole scenario.
Second, one should never rush to get in the air. What's the point of getting a longer balloon flight if you're worn out from hurrying to get it up? My point is that it's not. Even if it had been a shorter flight, it still would have been a first balloon ride for the two women passengers.
And finally, passengers should always be aware that when it comes to personal safety and equipment, there is no choice. I'm not sure whether Rich told her during the briefing to stow away her camera equipment upon landing or not, but she obviously didn't do so. Instead, she was holding tight to her camera when we hit, and an injury resulted.
After examining the negatives of this flight, I discovered that there was at least one positive point. Rich had made a good decision to go out and fly in, rather than flying into the congested area north of the field. I can't imagine having one more stress factor added to this flight!