Iowa (Continued)

 

When I cleared the trees, I got my first hint that everything was not going to go exactly according to plan. I was headed toward the west, into Omaha and the Class C airspace. Based on the forecast, I had expected only light winds toward the west, but according to my GPS my speed was already 10 mph, and picking up as I ascended.

I turned on my transponder to the assigned code and called ATC a few times, but got no response. My speed rose to 20 mph, and then 25 mph, and I was rapidly using up the space between me and Omaha. I dropped some ballast to increase my rate of climb, hoping that the predicted eastbound winds were actually there at 2000 feet to take me back away from the city.

 


Heading West from IWCC

 

"This is ultralight balloon, operating under IWCC event waiver," I called for the third time, and this time there was a response.

"Paraglider, this is Omaha TRACON, please proceed to east of Council Bluffs airport."

"Balloon," I corrected. Airplane guys only vaguely understand that ultralight aircraft exist, and the concept of an ultralight balloon, although allowed for in the regulations, is very mysterious. They had heard of paragliders, though. "I'm trying." I was at 1500 feet now. I was slowing a bit, and my track was bending to the north.

"Thank you, sir," TRACON said. Bemused, I listened to him talking to a Southwest airliner, and a Fedex cargo jet. With the transponder, they could see my exact position, and the planes were actually miles away, so it was quite safe for all parties. Still, it was a little disconcerting, since most balloonists spend their flying careers trying to stay away from big airplanes and controlled airspace, and yet here I was, flying around in just such a place with my bouquet of oversized toy balloons.

The odd and wonderful thing about it was that it was legal. I once had an offer to fly a cluster balloon in Canada -- not anywhere particularly close to big cities or airports, just a normal flight. I conulted with Transport Canada, their FAA, and it turned out that there was no way in Canada for a person to legally fly with a bunch of helium-filled balloons-- anywhere, ever! The issue got referred all the way to Transport Canada headquarters in Ottawa, but that was how the regulations were: no cluster ballooning in Canada. Whereas here in the U.S., not only was it legal to fly with helium balloons, but with the right safety equipment and qualifications, I could get permission to be here, at least nominally with the jets. Of course, the downside of freedom is that you have to not screw up.

Finally, TRACON called me again. "This is paraglider," I said, not bothering to correct him this time. "My course is 040, 8 knots." My track had bent off to the northeast, away from Omaha, although without as much speed as I would have liked.

"Thank you, paraglider, please remain below 3500 feet."

 


Council Bluffs, Missouri River, Omaha

 

 

Now that I was no longer headed right towards the Class C airspace, there was still the question of how I was going to complete the flight without being blown back into Omaha when I came down again.

My first objective was to get back to the east. I leveled out at 2500', moving east at 5 to 10 mph. I slowly worked my way back as far east as the college and out of the Class C airspace, although I was by now a fair distance to the north of the campus. I could see the hot-air balloons take off and go shooting off to the west, then slow and begin moving slowly to the east as they gained altitude. Having had the chance to watch me and some of the earlier balloons, most were ascending rapidly through the fast wind layer, and managing not to get too far west. By the time the last of them were up, the first to launch were starting to descend. Again, the lower wind swept them off to the west, and even when they were down at the surface, it looked like they were moving west at a good clip.

If I stayed high a long time, I could get far enough east that I'd have some room to run when I dropped in to land and started zooming off to the west again toward Omaha. On the other hand, it looked like the wind on the surface was picking up, so the longer I stayed up the faster I'd be going when I tried to land. I called Ernie, telling him to keep the chase vehicles well to my west.

 

So, keeping an eye on my eastward progress and the other balloons, I sat back to enjoy the ride. The land below was very beautiful: green on green on green. Things generally look much flatter from the air, so the rolling hills were only slightly discernible, but you could see the contours of the land in the way that the fields were planted.

 


Iowa

 

After about an hour in the air, I decided it was time to head down. The hot-air balloons I could see were still moving pretty fast down low. I checked in with Ernie in the chase vehicle. Mentally, I prepared myself for one of those adventure-type experiences.

I burst a small balloon and descended slowly until my track changed from eastbound to northbound, and I began to pick up speed. Then, I burst several large balloons, hoping to drop through the fast westbound layer quickly enough to avoid going to Nebraska. My speed picked up from 10 mph to 20 mph, finally topping out near 30 mph, and my track swung to the west. I was descending at about 400 fpm, and covering a fair amount of distance across the rolling farmland.

At four hundred feet, my speed was still over 20 mph, and I began to drop ballast to slow my descent. I leveled out, and at about 150 feet, my speed was about 15 mph -- better, but still fast for a basketless landing. In five minutes I had used up all the running room to the west that I had taken half an hour to build up but the good news was that I had dropped in fast enough so that I wasn't too far west.

 

Down low, the gently rolling hills were quite noticeable -- nothing very tall, but definite uphill and downhill slopes. In a hot-air balloon this would be easy enough to negotiate with a bit of extra burner control, but with my need to dump ballast or burst a balloon for every change in altitude, I would soon run out of ballast and balloons. Not wanting to go back up into the faster winds, I decided to land at the first opportunity. My chase vehicles were out there somewhere, I could hear Ernie on the radio trying to coordinate with the other vehicle, but given the situation, it didn't seem likely that he could get out in front of me in time to take a drop line or grab me when I came in. I would have to land and get stable by myself.

I was headed toward a small farmhouse with some alfalfa fields out behind it. I considered shooting for the alfalfa, but I was moving at a good clip, and knew I would probably be dragged into the upsloping cornfields beyond. It looked like there was a clear area over the top of the rise, past the corn, but it was hard to tell.

 

I began to drop a bit of ballast so that I would clear the top of the rise, but it was coming up on me rapidly. I leveled out, but now I was clipping along only a foot or two over the corn, about forty feet from the top of the rise. I could have dropped a whole bag of ballast and gone shooting back up, but given the speed I had, I decided it would be better to land here than fly on. My feet went through the corn... then the rest of my body... and then I was dragging.. then standing.... in the corn. The balloons were bumping around in the wind, trying to drag me forward, but the corn was thick enough to stop me. I released some balloons to get stable.

Less than a minute later, I could hear crew calling me from the edge of the cornfield. I couldn't see them, since the corn was taller than I was, but they told me I was only thirty feet or so from the edge of the field. I took a few cautious hops, and the wind pulled me out to where they were. They had to hold on tight to me, because the wind was blowing 10 to 12 mph.

 

Crew walked me down from the top of the ridge to a little grassy field that was sheltered from the wind. The family whose land we were on came out to help us pull the balloons down. They had been watching me through binoculars for half an hour prior to my landing, and were astounded that I had put down in their back yard. We gave their kids several of my balloons, then drove back to the college. There had been some fairly fast landings for some of the hot-air balloons that morning, and people were pleased to see me intact.


Souvenir balloons

 

In retrospect, it was a very educational flight -- I now know how much wind is too much wind at landing for the cluster balloon, although in the absence of accurate weather forecasts, it's not clear exactly how much help that is.

It was also memorable to have flown in the Omaha Class C airspace. Part of it was just the challenge of having the right skills and equipment to do such a thing safely and legally, and of being able to obtain permission from an appropriately skeptical FAA. But in a broader sense, being able to fly my bouquet of helium balloons with other aircraft means that our regulatory system for aviation can still occasionally accomodate something out of the ordinary. Freedom manifests itself in a variety of ways, some quite silly. I'm happy to live in a country where there's still room for that.

 

 

Celebration XXIII

Crew Chief: Ernie Hartt
Principal Crew: Andrew Messerschmidt, Sean and Terri Kelly, Maria Hartt Eckerman
Special thanks to Iowa Western Community College, the Lighter-than-Air Balloon Fair, Jo Kossow, Shirley Chambers, Rich Jaworski, the Cornhusker Corvette Club and Leach Camper Sales.
Photography: Sandy Swift, Maria Hartt Eckerman, John Ninomiya

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