I notice that the sky is turning somewhat nasty, and I rouse Dave. Together we put a tarpaulin over the truck bed, to protect the basket, envelope, fan, and assorted harware from any inclemency on the part of the weather. Just as we are dropping off to sleep, it starts to hail. We sit and watch the show, and I mentally congratulate myself on my foresight. I haven't quite thought of everything, though -- I've neglected to tell the girls in the other room that we have covered the truck. They are woken by the hail, rush to put clothes on and run around to our side of the building; only to find the truck already covered. Their effort is not wasted however: there's another balloon on their side of the hotel that had not yet covered up, so they help with that.
We awaken in the late afternoon, drive down, and wander the fairground adjacent to the field while we wait for nightfall. Somebody in the fairground is inflating toy helium balloons for sale, and when I hear the characteristic sound of gas hissing from the cylinder, I think "pibal!", and look around to see which way it will go when released.
Tonight there is supposedly going to be a glow. This is when you stand your balloon up in the dark, and every time you trigger the burner, the flame lights up the entire inside of the balloon. The wind is a little high, but there are a number of balloonists camped out around the upwind edge of the field hoping that it will die down. It doesn't die down, but three pilots decide to go for it anyway. Dave is among them. He's usually quite conservative, but he's never done a glow with this balloon, and he'd been looking forward to it, and since he's got rather a lot of crew, he decides its doable.
We manage to lay out the tarps and set out the envelope without too much trouble, in the last of the fading light, although there's some added difficulty caused by the fact that the top is pulled way further down than usual, following this morning's excitement. Hooking up the lines is a task that can reasonably be done with a flashlight, since it's all done in a fairly small area right next to the basket; but beyond that, it becomes problematic. As we start cold-filling the balloon, the far end of the envelope is barely visible. I'm holding one side of the throat open and out there, somewhere, presumably, other members of our crew are holding the crown line.
But there's a huge amount of wind. During cold fill, the balloon is supposed to sit calmly on the ground. Tonight, it is not only rocking from side to side, making life difficult for the invisible crown line team; it is also trying to lift off. Wind going over the top of the balloon, like air over a wing, has to travel further, thus creating lift. Balloonists call this "false lift", because it goes away the moment that you leave the ground and start moving with the wind; but right now it's pretty damn real.
The balloon is being pulled away from us with considerable force, partly by the crown line team, but mostly by the wind. This is no problem, because the basket is tied off to the truck. However, to stand the balloon up, we will first have to untie. To deal with this problem, Dave has located a cadre of large drunks, to act as ballast by all piling into the basket as it stands up.
There's also the problem of light. Right now, Dave can just barely see the envelope, and thus when he first fires the burner, he will have some idea of where to aim it. But that first burn will destroy his night vision, and from then on he will be starting each burn almost blind, guided only by the small patch of fabric that Kristen can illuminate with the flashlight.
I can't remember the last time I was scared, but I'm scared now.
But Dave is not disheartened. He fires up the burner.
The flame looks really different in the dark. In daylight, the bottom half of the flame is an almost invisibly pale blue, with the top shading into translucent yellow and orange. At night, that blue is clearly visible, and the yellow end is bright. I'm on the right hand side, the non-fan side, of the throat. Dave has to aim the flame away from me, because it will curve in the wind from the fan. At night, the bright yellow-orange tip of the flame hovers inside the envelope in front of me, and then as Dave lets go of the trigger and the flame collapses, the tip suddenly dives towards my face. Of course, the flame is exactly the same shape that it would be in daylight, it's just that now I can see it.
The balloon, rippling, stands up. The ballast cadre pile inelegantly in.
They're not heavy enough. There's four of them, and they're all big guys, and Heather and I are putting weight on the sides of the basket, and it's still trying to lift off. I decide to jump in as well, and through the crowd in the basket, I can just barely make out Heather doing the same. I wind up sitting scrunched on a fuel tank, but the extra weight seems to be doing the trick.
Now that I'm ballast, I can take some time to look around. There is one other balloon standing up, and a third in the process. Our crown line team are vaguely visible in the dark, trying to control the envelope's swaying.
We stay standing for a while, and then drop it back onto the tarp. Packing is a bit of a challenge in the now almost-complete dark. And then it's dinner and sleep.
The next morning, it's back to the field for a casual flight. It all goes fairly smoothly, winds beautiful. Packing is once again a challenge, because we've landed in a field of 20cm tall dense grass and cacti. The tarpaulin therefore "floats" on the top of the grass, and as I walk around on it, I am strongly aware that my next step, instead of on to grass that collapses under my foot, could be onto a cactus.
I also see something that I've never seen before: a balloon off the ground with no-one in it. Another balloon has landed quite near us, and they've decided to drag it back to the road before they drop it. The problem is that they only have pilot plus two crew, one of whom is a kid. The two crew alone are not enough to drag it back to the road, so the pilot gets out as well, and they all heave on the basket, the pilot reaching in occasionally to do a brief burn. And then, having no-one to roll out tarps (and quite possibly, no tarps to roll out), they drop it, straight onto the tough grass and cacti.
We do breakfast, leaning out of the door of the small cafe occasionally to watch the air show roar overhead, and then we convoy back to Vegas.