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 V.24 No.45 | November 5 - 11, 2015 

Feature

Can Courtney Do It?

Can Courtney be a balloonist?

Courtney Foster
Courtney Foster
Courtney freaking out in the sky

In her search for knowledge, adventure and an answer to the ever pressing question, “What am I doing with my life?!” Courtney Foster has decided to take on the experiences she's always wondered about (or been afraid of).

This month, Courtney tries to tackle a treasured Albuquerque pastime, Ballooning.

Ballooning is something I've been curious about since I was a kid. Back then it seemed magical—this giant ball of wizardry and light lifting you in the air. It also seemed to be one of the scariest things ever. It's not like you can steer it and you always hear those horror stories about people crashing into power lines and getting electrocuted, or the weather suddenly turning bad while you're up in the air. But, since I'm experiencing a very interesting, “time to find yourself” moment in my life, I thought it'd be good to try something that kind of freaked me out. The question was, how?

I knew that I had to find a balloon (obviously), I had to learn how it works and I had to get up in the balloon (and land) without dying.

Luckily for me, I have a friend who has been crewing for years and was recruiting folks to help out for the Fiesta. So I arranged to meet up with her at 9am next to the BioPark to help the crew inflate their balloon.

That first day, I was running late and very unprepared. I didn't have any working gloves; I was wearing skinny jeans and a tank top. I was slightly nauseous and dizzy from my exploits the night before and was extremely nervous that the crew were all silently judging me as I walked up to introduce myself.

I walked up to my friend (and Alibi intern) Megan Reneau, and gave a meek, “Hey I'm here. Sorry I'm a little late.” The balloon was already stretched out on the ground and most of the group was working on getting it ready to inflate. “Jay, this is my friend, Courtney. She's here to work,” she called out to a tall, older gentleman.

I knew that I had to find a balloon (obviously), I had to learn how it works and I had to get up in the balloon (and land) without dying.

Jay, the pilot of the Donate Life "Flame On" balloon, looked lazily in my direction, “Alright, put on your gloves and get to it.” After confessing that I had no gloves and no clue about what he wanted me to “get to,” Megan stepped away and helped me find an extra pair in the back of someone's truck. They were old and smelled funny. I put them on and just like that, I was part of the crew. That first day I joined them, I felt very lost. I hadn't ever been that close to a balloon. I followed Megan around like an anxious puppy, trying my best to follow directions without looking like an idiot. I got very sunburned.

Inflating the balloon is actually fairly simple. You have someone hold on to the throat of the balloon (the part that's directly over the basket) and then a few people grab hold of the very heavy canvas bag that contains the balloon and walk/run it backwards until the bag is empty. Once the balloon is stretched out, you have to set up the burners and attach the balloon to the basket. It's pretty amazing when you realize that the only thing holding the basket to this big hot air balloon is just a few metal cords.

Once the balloon is attached,the inflating begins. I was on fan duty for the first few days I crewed, which is exactly what it sounds like. Two people held the throat open wide while we pointed huge fans into the balloon. The fans were really loud and pretty high powered; holding on to them made my body vibrate and eventually my hands and arms felt like the physical equivalent of saying a word over and over until it sounds wrong and doesn't make sense—numb and sensitive at the same time. But soon, the balloon was up enough to start working the burners. The pilot climbed in front of the basket and started shooting the hot air into the throat. Within five minutes, the balloon became buoyant and started to stand up on its own. Once it was inflated, it tried to take off so everyone had to run up and jump on the basket to weigh it down until the pilot was ready to ascend.

When the balloon finally lifts off the ground crew began to chase. Chasing was incredibly fun. We sat in the back of a truck and drank beer as we sped through the city, trying to be close to the balloon when it finally landed. My favorite part was running up to the descending balloon and jumping on the basket to add weight and help ground it.

Flying though—that was the real test. Yeah, I can hold a fan while the balloon inflates, I can drag myself out of bed at an ungodly hour (kind of); I can drink free beer and chase a balloon, but I didn't know how I was going to react to actually being up in the air.

On the fourth day of crewing, I helped inflate the balloon and weigh it down so the riders could climb in. At the last minute when they were ready to take off, the pilot announced he had an extra space in the basket. "Take Courtney!" Megan exclaimed. And so with an affirming nod from Jay-the-pilot and a racing heart, I climbed like an unsure giraffe into the basket. The balloon lifted from the ground and it was incredibly surreal, it happened so quickly. One minute I was on the ground and the next I was being raised into the air, watching the things below me get smaller and smaller until I was above everything. It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever done, balloons dotting the sky around me, eerily quiet, kinda cold. The scariest thing was making sure I didn't touch the red rope on the side of the basket. This rope will quickly remove the cap, rapidly releasing all of the hot air inside the balloon. I, of course, got stuck on the side of the basket where this rope lives. It was a terrifying feeling of “Hold on, but don't touch that, but hold on, but dear god don't touch that.”

Now ... landing is a totally different thing. You can't steer the balloon, so, while the pilot has been trained to estimate wind patterns, sudden gusts or unexpected weather changes can throw you very quickly off projected course and power lines are your worst enemy. After being up for a little more than an hour, we were running out of fuel. In an attempt to find a place to land, we ended up over the Rio Grande. And while there were no power lines there, there were pokey trees (bad news for a balloon) and water. We came upon the river quicker than I expected and when the bottom of our basket skimmed the surface, water rushed into the tiny wicker box, raising my anxiety level 10 fold as I tried to stay dry and not fall out (or pull that red rope). The pilot found my nervousness amusing and worked the burners quickly to get us out of that area. Touching the river and taking off is called a “Splash and Dash” and, in retrospect, it was pretty cool. Eventually we found a safe (but inconvenient) landing spot inside an outdoor storage facility and our crew had to contact the owners to get inside the gate.

Can Courtney Do It?

Yes. Definitely. It was a surprisingly easy and super fun experience that anyone can do. I never imagined that I could do this and it was a solid push in a positive direction.

What did Courtney learn?

This experience reminded me that anything is possible and if I'm willing to put forth the effort (and wake up on time) I can accomplish amazing things, like magically floating over my city while climbing out of my anxious box and into an adventurous basket.

 

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