Kansas (cont'd)

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...and up I went.

 

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No matter how many times I do it, the first moments of a cluster balloon flight are always a miracle -- at the center of this fantasy of color and light, weightless, buoyant, rising silent away from the earth....

 

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The hot-air balloons were having a hare and hounds competition -- everyone was trying to follow the "hare" balloon,  which had launched first.  For a while I drifted north with all the other balloons, watching the competition.

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The hare balloon had set down beside a small pond.  Rather than following the other balloons down low, l let my balloons continue to carry me higher.  Soon the other balloons shrank to bright points of color below.  Higher up, my track turned more to the west.  I drifted past the north end of Newton, rising steadily.

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Newton, Kansas

 

At about 5000 feet, I found a wind heading west at about 15 mph.  I burst a few balloons to level out, then sat back to enjoy the wonderful view.  The land was surprisingly beautiful -- gridded off into squares of various browns and greens, as I had supposed, but with lines of trees, and little farmhouses and barns, and small ponds -- things you can't see too well from an airliner.

 

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I floated along for an hour, occasionally talking to Chuck, who was following me in a truck.  The wind was forecast to come up to 10 mph by 10 AM, so I wanted to be down by then -- 10 mph doesn't seem like a lot, until you're being dragged along behind a big bunch of balloons at that speed.  So, after an hour in the air, I burst a few balloons and started a slow descent.

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As I got lower, I began heading north again.  A bit of wind had developed on the surface, perhaps five or ten miles per hour.  I got on the radio and sent Chuck up to the next east-west crossroad along my track.  I dropped some water to slow my descent.  I was a hundred feet up, passing over a farmhouse, with a line of a few trees ahead, and then a nice open plowed field.  On the far end of the field were some power lines; Chuck was waiting for me on the road there.  At first it looked like I would pass through a gap in the row of trees to a nice landing at the near end of the field.  However, the wind at the surface was just a few degrees more toward the west, and I found myself heading right toward a tree.

 

I quickly dumped a bag full of water, and pulled up sharply, clearing the tree.   Then, I cut loose a dozen balloons all at once, to get me down before I reached the power lines at the far end of the field.  I landed with an affirmative thump, and called Chuck to tell him I was down and OK.  Chuck's son Aaron ran in to help me walk down the field to the truck.

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A family on their way to church had seen me descending and ran over from their car to help, as did another man and his son who were passing by.   We tethered the cluster for a few mintues and let some of my crew go up for a ride.   However, even with two tether lines, it was hard to hold the cluster in the rising breeze, and soon we had to begin bursting and deflating balloons.  Watching the balloons bump and flail in the wind, I was happy that I had landed when I did.  A young boy tied six or seven balloons to himself -- too few to lift him, although they almost did drag him around a bit. 

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"You're lucky to have a day like today," one of my spectators told me.  "It's usually pretty windy around here."

 

It was an odd feeling, doing the cluster balloon flight by myself, without Ernie or anyone I knew to help.  Relying entirely on people you don't know to build an aircraft that you will take you a mile up into the sky is a strange experience -- a test of your ability to plan, explain, direct and cajole, and ulitmately, a test of their willingness to be good sports at 6 AM in the morning and help you out.  It requires a certain basic optimism about people, which in some ways is much more difficult to muster than simple trust in your flying skills and equipment.  That morning, to my considerable relief, things worked as they were supposed to, and I rose into the skies of Kansas, buoyed by huge, colorful toy balloons and the kindness of strangers.

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Celebration XI

 

Crew Chief: Chuck Powell
Principal Crew: Aaron Powell, Paul Wiebe, Geoffrey Fowler
Special Thanks to:  Kelli Keller, Balloons Over Kansas; Balloons Over Kansas volunteers; Eaglejet Aviation; TW and the Newton City-County Airport
Geoffery Fowler appears courtesy of the Wall Street Journal
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Photographs by Geoffrey Fowler, Aaron Powell, Paul Wiebe, John Crosby and John Ninomiya.

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20021027