Some years ago, as I was preparing for retirement, I suggested to Nancy that my assistant Wendy would call her asking for suggestions for a retirement gift. (A perk of being a director is that one controls every detail.) My choice: a hot air balloon ride. Wendy, ever concerned for my welfare, dismissed that option and arranged for a more sensible reading chair and ottoman. And since I sit in that chair every day, I can say she made the right decision.
Several times, sitting on my kitchen porch on warm summer evenings, I’ve watched large, colorful balloons lingering over Ithaca and the lake. I expressed my interest in taking such a ride often enough and Nancy got the hint. A few weeks before we left for England, on my birthday, she gave me a voucher from Bath Balloons, for a ride, whenever I could arrange it. Consequently we planned our travels to arrive in Bath, hoping for fine weather. When we got to our hotel, we could see that the weather turned splendid. I called a contact number and learned that the balloon would launch with me aboard.
The local ballooners simply set up shop in Bath’s major green space, Royal Victoria Park, on a large meadow where, on a warm splendid evening, families were barbecuing and children playing. As I waited two LandRovers towing trailers arrived, one with the gondola and the other with the balloon itself.
With the aid of willing (and novice) balloonists, the balloon was pulled from trailer and stretched out on the lawn. The crew set up two powerful gas powered fans, cranked the engines, and aimed the fans into the opening of the balloon,
Such an operation cannot help but attract notice, of course. Families walked over from their picnics and a peanut gallery formed to cheer on the action.
The gondola holds 16 people, in 4 small sections, with the pilot and canisters of propane in the center. When the forced air has sufficiently inflated the balloon, the pilot ignites the propane with a whoosh, heating up the air in the inflated balloon which is still earth bound. Slowly, the gondola, which has been lying on its side securely tethered to the LandRover, turns upright. After the preflight instructions on how to behave while taking off and landing, the captain calls us aboard, unclips the LandRover tethers, and “up, up, and away in my beautiful balloon” (now let that song play in your head for a few days).
In the balloon, I had no idea of how this looked; Nancy kindly offered a few photos of the take off.
At the start of the entire operation, one of the crew released a small, black helium-filled balloon to test the wind direction. I followed the ascent uneasily mindful of its increasing altitude. I was feeling a bit anxious, trying to keep at bay memories of news stories detailing balloons dragging across power lines as they landed. I was also remembering the opening scene in Ian McEwan’s novel, Enduring Love, in which a character trying to rescue an out of control balloon, grabs a rope and is pulled up to rapidly to let go. He holds on until he can no longer manage, lets go, and falls to his death. I had to think more positively.
Once airborne, the ride was easy. The balloon rose and slowly drifted over Bath, across the Avon River, and to the south. I lost my anxiety and felt exhilarated watching the meadow, the trees, and the city fall away.