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|August 7-13, 2008
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A hot air balloon ride offers views and adventure
Story and photos by Dana Logan
The sun was just beginning to peek out over the horizon as we pulled onto the field just north of Boulder, parked the van, and opened up the trailer carrying a giant basket with 280 pounds of fabric inside.
With the assured movements of strong, young men who have each step down to a science, Nicolas (Nick) Saldarriaga and Kevin Kohler tip the basket on its side, ready the burners and spread the enormous swath of fabric straight out from its source. Once everything is in place, the colorful fabric is held open and a powerful fan slowly inflates the balloon with cold air. After several minutes, the balloon begins to take shape.
Once its full, Kevin tells me that he’s about to fill the balloon with hot air, at which point the inflated fabric, still lying sideways on the ground, will begin to float until it is held in the air. Since we still have to get in the basket, he only fills the balloon with enough hot air to allow it to move to an upright position, while still keeping the attached basket on the ground. But even with the limited heat in the balloon, we must put all our weight on the sides of the basket until everyone has boarded to ensure that the balloon doesn’t leave without us.
Kevin hoists himself into the large woven basket, then invites me and the other passenger to join him. Once we’ve all situated ourselves, Kevin gives the burner a squeeze and a burst of fire streams through the opening and straight into the balloon.
In the first moments, it’s almost difficult to tell that we’ve left the ground; the take-off is so gentle and easy. As we begin to float higher, the chase crew that we left on the ground appears smaller and smaller and the calm winds guide the balloon over the twin lakes beneath us.
By now, the sun is casting a golden wash over the trees and ground below us. We have risen to a height that allows us to see over the foothills and glimpse the expanse of peaks that make up the Rocky Mountain Range.
I begin to ask a question and my voice is drowned out by the loud psssshhhh of the burner lighting the propane and sending it upward as a powerful flame into the heart of the balloon. Kevin apologizes, explaining that he sometimes has to cut people off when they are talking, for the sake of keeping the balloon in the air (which is just fine with me — I can talk all I want when I’m on the ground, so long as I arrive there safely). But aside from the sounds of the intermittent bursts of flame, the flight is the most quiet, calm and peaceful airborne experience I’ve ever encountered. Nothing like the G-force you feel upon lift-off aboard a jetliner, the hot air balloon drifts gently through the air, allowing for a serene way to experience the morning sun rising over our fair city. Boulder’s iconic Flatirons glow with the radiance of the first daylight and that, combined with our position in the air provides a view that is simply incredible.
As we drift along, Kevin explains how his business, Adventure Balloon Sports, which he co-owns with his college buddy, Nick, was conceived. Both men have been interested in things that fly since childhood, he explains. Kevin began the pursuit of his flying dreams during his sophomore year of college when he began paragliding. Nick’s interest in flight led him to get his airplane pilot’s license seven years ago. He’s also an accomplished skydiver and paraglider pilot.
After both Kevin and Nick graduated from CU, the young entrepreneurs decided to have a go at the flying business. They did their research, took lessons to get their commercial balloon pilots’ licenses, and bought the kaleidoscope of flying colors that is their hot air balloon.
The business has been official since January, but the pair started giving rides in April, since winter winds aren’t kind to ballooners. Spring, summer and fall winds, on the other hand, are perfect for ballooning in this climate, so Adventure Balloon Sports gives rides from April through November. But for some, the quiet solitude of being airborne and flowing with the wind just isn’t enough of a thrill. Not to worry; the company also caters to skydivers who want to jump out of the hot air balloon. One such skydiver, Matt Hecker, is among those on the crew on the day I fly, helping to set up and take down the balloon. Matt explains that the experience of jumping out of a balloon is very different from jumping out of an airplane because in a balloon, you are moving gently with the wind, not against it, which gives the feeling of jumping off something stationary — almost like base jumping. In an airplane, he says, there’s so much air rushing past you before you even jump that it takes away from the anticipation of falling through the air.
Because Adventure Balloon Sports accommodates skydivers, Kevin tells me that some of the passengers they take up for a ride get to see a skydiver jump during their trip, from what he calls “the best possible angle.” While I didn’t get to see that one for myself, there are still some thrills in store before the final landing.
High above the ground, we float gently through the air, without much sensation of movement. But as Kevin explains, the closer you get to the ground, the more obvious the feeling of motion. As he begins looking for a suitable place to land, Kevin guides the balloon through different layers of air, catching distinctive wind drifts in each separate layer. And, he explains, sometimes in order to catch the right wind direction, you have to fly low for a while, then bring the balloon back up.
So as we fly mere inches above a small field, brushing dried thistle with the bottom of the basket, I get to experience for myself the more intense sense of motion he had anticipated. At one point, I look over at Kevin with a touch of alarm — wondering if we are landing and, if so, is it intentional?
Then, with absolute control, he swiftly directs the balloon upward. As we rise again, we fly over a neighborhood, brushing a treetop or two along the way and drawing people out of their houses with cameras in their hands. Others, walking dogs or watering gardens stop to gaze at the giant balloon, wave and shout “good morning.”
Still in search of a spot to land, Kevin tells me that the “holy grail” of ballooning is landing in the same place you launched and, based on the direction the wind was taking us, he thinks we might just have a shot at it.
As he guides us back in that direction, we can see the chase car with Nick as driver and the rest of the crew ready to help with the landing. Communicating via walkie-talkies, Nick and Kevin discuss possible landing sites using both vantage points — Nick’s from the ground and Kevin’s from the air. Finally, only a hundred or so yards from the field where we launched, they decide to put the balloon down in a quiet street, postponing the “holy grail” for another day. With plenty of room to pack the balloon back up, the spot works just fine, though a car or two is forced to maneuver around us as we quickly put the pieces back in the trailer.
Finding our way back to the launch field — about a 20-second trip (so close to the “holy grail”) — we park the van and out comes the champagne and O.J. for the traditional congratulatory champagne toast. As Nick pours, Kevin explains the meaning of the toast. Legend has it, he says, that historically, balloon pilots always carried with them a bottle of champagne to appease angry landowners on whose property they had to land. When no angry landowners needed appeasement, the pilot, passengers and crew would imbibe instead.
As is custom, the pilot of the flight delivers the toast. Raising our glasses, Kevin declares:
“The winds have welcomed you with softness,
The sun has blessed you with warm hands,
You have flown so high and so well,
That God has joined in your laughter,
And returned you gently to the loving arms of Mother Earth.”
And with a clink and congratulations, our ride is over, but my memory of Boulder from such great heights will remain with me for years to come.
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