I had 308 flights under my belt before I became becalmed, and of course I had to be over powerlines in strange territory, with three passengers at capacity weight, registering on my last (third) tank.
Sharon, Connecticut is about 50 miles west of where I usually fly. The surroundings are rich with large rolling farmlands. To the east civilization increases gradually, but to the north, west and south, woods are prevalent. South of Sharon, there were in fact three State Parks in a row. My concerns as usual would be wind: too much or from the wrong direction; as well as flying strange territory. I figured with winds light and variable, I'd be able to keep the flight in the local area during this morning flight.
Let me take you back to August 5, 1992. The morning is lovely at 5:30 AM; 60F ambient temperature. The forecast is for winds light and variable on the surface, 8K NW at 3000 feet, sunny and clear.
The three passengers have been told to arrive at the friendly farm promptly at 6 AM. Two arrive at 6:15. At 6:30, I tell the couple that if we wait any longer we may have to cut the flight short. They say they want to wait for the third passenger. At 7:05, we decide instead to take another friend of theirs. We launch.
One hundred feet in the air I see that though we took off in a hollow, the farm is on a vast hill - 2 to 3 miles in every direction. The hill is surrounded by a vast forest. No matter what altitude we go to, we keep a steady course towards the Southeast. Within 15 minutes we are going about 7-8K over the Housatonic Meadow State Park at altitudes between 1500 and 2000 feet. Around 8:15 AM we are crossing the eastern tip of Macedonia Brook State Park.
When I see the covered bridge I drop down to about 100 feet. The town of Cornwall Bridge is a small hilly river town surrounded for miles by woods. I know I have to get down somewhere right near here. Well into my third and last tank, I am tempted to drop into the river as we follow it slowly in the now light and variable winds. I decide to hang on for a little while. I become very alert, knowing things are becoming sticky. At 8:25 AM we take a right turn from the river and slowly move up the hillside to the east. When we reach a flat plateau-like area with a road and powerline, it happens - something I've never experienced before. About 300 feet above this powerline we stop dead. We are totally becalmed.
We drop to 200 feet. I glance at my tank; it is registering 20%. Still becalmed! I look down to see what would happen if we ran out of fuel. We are neither left nor right of the powerlines. I see a man about 400 feet up the road. I call to him; he doesn't hear me. I call twice more, louder. I burn gingerly; I'm keenly aware of my heavy load and dwindling fuel.
Fear strikes my body in a physical way. Sensations of painful alarms in my chest, stomach and limbs are telling me I need to make a decision soon. I burn, watching my gauge move. The man looks up and walks towards us. The sun is getting hot. I burn again. Should I go up or down? What if I use all the fuel climbing, and we still go straight down with no hope of assistance? What if we go down to assistance level and can't get the line safely to the man below? What if he chickens out?
I am about to drop down and ask the man if he will assist, but suddenly something tells me not to. It's too risky. My gut tells me to climb.
I burn, off and on, till we get a result. It all happens very quickly at 500 feet. We turn and move toward the south. Ahead is a small hillside farm. We are free of the powerlines. Even if we have to cause some damage to the balloon getting in, it's nothing compared to powerline risks. I'm feeling much more hopeful now. If the course holds, we can drop in the other side of the tall trees ahead. I dare not change altitude too soon for fear of losing our direction. When the moment comes that I can be dropping and still clear the tall trees I'll pull hard. We should land in the upper pasture away from the barns and house.
I pull; then again. Everything is going perfect. We cross the treeline about 150 feet up. I burn. We barely absorb some of the shock of a hard landing. Not bad really. Now we bounce, a little. I want to kiss the ground, but I keep my cool. It's 8:45 AM. Two tanks read 5% and the last one about 4%. Don is driving the chase vehicle up the dirt road; the friendly farmer is with him.
I decide life is easier when I only fly in my local area. I also plan to put my 4th 10 gallon tank back in the basket. Even though my average flights so far have used between 15-23 gallons of fuel, I should be ready for the exception.