It's not really as silent as all that. For a start, the burner is
phenomenally loud; even louder than the fan we use for cold fill.
When we're not burning, there's still the chatter of the two radios: one
for talking to air traffic control and fixed-wing pilots; the other for
talking with ground crew. There are often several balloons and chase
crews on the one frequency, so there can be quite a bit of chit-chat
at times. And even when the burner and both radios are quiet,
there's sound drifting up from the ground. Dogs can hear the burner
a mile off, and they all want to protect their turf from it. So there's a
permanent floating bark underneath the balloon; as we fly over new houses, new
dogs run out into their yards, barking, looking left, right, everywhere but up,
for the intruder.
It's another day, and we're flying from another field. This time, we're on the east side of town, underneath the approach path for aircraft landing at McCarran.
This is not as big a coincidence as it sounds: fixed-wing pilots like to land into the wind. That way, for a given airspeed, their speed against the ground is a few knots lower. That makes their touchdown speed slower, which is safer. Balloon pilots, on the other hand, like to take off from a point such that the winds will carry them away from the airport. So the corridor that is favourite for fixed-wing craft to approach on is also favourite for balloons, but in the opposite direction. However, we are at quite different altitudes; we are staying within 1000 feet of the ground, and the fixed-wing aircraft are passing several thousand feet overhead.
We set up this morning alongside another balloon, in a vacant lot next to a church. But he took off a few minutes after us, and different winds have carried him in different directions. We are a few hundred feet above the ground, floating slowly eastward over an outpost of suburbia, when Dave asks me if I am up to speed with piloting. I mention that I have never so much as touched the trigger of a burner. He gives me a few tips, and steps aside.
This high up, there is only one thing to watch, and one thing to do. The one thing to watch is the instrument pack. It's got three instruments on it: an altimeter, a rate-of-climb doohickey, and a thermometer reading giving the temperature at the crown of the balloon. I have my hands quite full enough with the altitude and rate of climb, and never even glance at the thermometer. The one thing to do is to keep one hand on the trigger of the burner overhead, pulling the trigger at appropriate moments. When landing, you also have to worry about avoiding obstacles on the ground, and about the line that lets hot air out of the top of the balloon, but that's way beyond my level.
The altimeter gives altitude above sea level; but of course what really matters is the altitude above ground level. Here in Vegas there's quite a difference - we took off this morning at around about 1600 feet ASL. Dave tells me to take the balloon up to about 2600 feet ASL. I burn appropriately, trying to keep the rate of climb at about 200 feet per minute. I am concentrating on the rate-of-climb doohickey when Dave calls the tower to let them know what we're doing. This gives me quite a start -- the doohickey is apparently sensitive to radio frequency emissions; and when Dave pushes the Talk button on his aircraft radio, our rate of climb appears to instantaneously drop by about 200 feet per minute.
After we've caught a bit of the high wind that Dave wanted, he instructs me to go back down. Sounds easy, doesn't it.
But on the way down, we meet a boundary between two layers of different temperature air. For a balloon, that means different lift: the heavier cold air gives us more lift for the same temperature of balloon than would the warm air. (This is why balloonists like to fly so early; cold air means better lift.) I'm trying to descend slowly, unaware of this invisible layer. Just as we descend into the cold air, I burn, giving us enough extra heat to approximately maintain our current rate of descent -- that is, if we were still in the warm air. But in the cold air we're now in, it's enough heat to send us sailing back up. Of course, unhappy with the fact that we're now climbing, I don't burn at all until we're descending again. As our rate of descent picks up, I burn. This is of course the exact moment that we're entering the cooler air, and up we go again. On the third or fourth try, I manage to let the balloon cool gradually as we sit on the boundary, and we continue our descent.
I have failed to cover myself in glory rollercoastering up and down the sky, but I do better close to the ground. One of the things that was causing me trouble was the delay between burn and lift, and Dave explains this to me on the way down. You don't get lift the instant that you hit the trigger on the burner; you have to wait for the new hot air you've created to reach the crown of the balloon. Up until this point, it's just creating eddy currents in the air inside the balloon; but once it hits the top, it pushes upwards on the fabric at the crown, and thus gives lift. For this size of balloon, that delay time is approximately eight seconds. So you have to think eight seconds into the future.
We are flying lower now, looking for a good spot to set down so we can swap people in and out of the basket, and then take off for another hop. But the ground we're flying over is quite devoid of good spots: it's the city's sewage settling ponds. I let the balloon descend gradually lower and lower, until I'm cruising about five feet above the surface of the pond water. At this altitude, I'm ignoring the instrument pack completely, and getting our altitude and rate of climb by eyeballing our shadow, our reflection, and the position of the crown line. The crown line, the rope attached to the very top of the balloon, is allowed to hang free down the side of the balloon during flight, and the bottom end of the line is conveniently about two feet below the bottom of the basket. The trick with contouring (which is the process of flying the balloon so as to follow the contour of the land) is to do a series of short burns eight second before you need to: just as the lift from your previous burn is starting to peter out, but while the balloon is still rising, you burn again, once, twice: two short squeezes of the trigger. I manage to keep the balloon at five feet altitude all the way across the ponds.
There's another trick balloon pilots like to do called a splash'n'dash, where they dip the bottom of the basket in a lake or river, then fly up again. This is, however, not to be attempted in sewerage settling ponds.
We fly on for a little. The balloon is great for spotting wildlife, as you tend to sneak up on it. We see a bunch of rabbits; and a roadrunner: only the second that I've seen over my whole time in Vegas. Dave takes over again for the landing, and I get traded out.
Of course, we didn't land right next to the vehicles. Roads are hard to come by in the sort of open ground we like to land in, and pilots don't generally want to land right next to roads in any case, for fear of winding up on them. As an added hazard, roads are often paralleled by fences and power lines, which are generally things to steer clear of. So we trudge back to the vehicles, and chase.
Balloons seldom land at the same place they started from, so it's necessary for the crew (and the trailer that the balloon travels in when it's not flying) to follow. This is somewhat exciting in itself -- you need to figure out where the balloon is going, and how to get there on the ground. Sometimes the roads co-operate, and sometimes they don't. Today it's more in the "don't" category. Dave has flown onwards into what is being turned into a housing development. They've gotten as far as grading the lots flat, and placing roads; but not as far as actually surfacing those roads. It's one of these developments with twisty-turny roads that go in inobvious directions, so every time we pick a road, it winds up taking us where we don't want to go. Luckily we have two vehicles, so we're able to leave the half of the crew that have the trailer attached to their vehicle sitting in an easy-to-maneuver spot while we scout in the other vehicle.
Sometimes, the pilot is able to give you instructions; and when this happens it's like the voice of an omniscient being speaking to you on your radio: "Go forward to the second street on your right, and turn. Yes, that one. Keep going 'til you get to the ball park, and hold there." And we take the turn, and we drive for a bit, and a ball park miraculously appears before us.
This is not one of those times. The development is hilly, and since Dave is low, he can't see the roads. It's all pretty low contrast anyway, trying to pick out the dirt roads from the dirt lots. Dave lands by himself, needing no assistance from ground crew on this low-wind day. We eventually figure out which road leads to him, and drive up to the balloon, which is oscillating gently, waiting for us.
We set out tarps, drop the balloon, "milk" the air out of it, pack it back in its bag, roll the tarps again and pack the whole assemblage back into the trailer. Just as we finish, the crew from the balloon that took off alongside us this morning turn up, and we all head off for a 10am breakfast.