Aviating By Any Other Name…

Bob Kirkby


Recently had an opportunity to go for my first hot air balloon ride. Although I frequently gaze skyward to watch balloons lazily drift past my place on the east side of Calgary, a hot-spot for ballooning, I have never made the effort to experience this form of aviating.

A friend of mine is a long-time member of the Calgary Balloon Club and offered to arrange a flight for me. Ralph Dowson has his own balloon but it is packed away pending an upcoming move so he arranged for both of us to go flying with another club member, Del Michaud.

I received a call from Ralph at 0530 the morning of the planned flight.

“Weather’s good,” he said. “We have to meet Del at the field in 45 minutes.” The “field” is actually a park next to the War museum in southwest Calgary. I later discovered that balloon operators in Calgary have permits to launch from a number of city parks.

We arrived just in time to help Del and his ground crew unload their lime green Herbal Magic balloon. Del has an agreement with Herbal Magic to fly the balloon as often as he can, which he does four of five times a week, weather permitting.

Not only does Herbal Magic supply the balloon, chase vehicle and trailer but they normally supply the passengers as well.

The advertising obviously pays off.

It took about half an hour to get airborne.

The wind was out of the SE at about 5 so we slowly drifted NW over sleepy neighborhoods just waking up. We waved to cyclists heading off to work along bike paths, and laughed at dogs in back yards racing around in circles barking at our fire-breathing monster in the sky.

Eventually we reached the Bow River valley and Del expertly took us down below the south ridge of the valley. To my surprise we changed course and started drifting westward along the river valley.

This was an amazingly tranquil experience.

Aside from the occasional blast of the propane burner to keep us afloat the only sound was that of water flowing along the river valley below. We waved to joggers and cyclists along the paths that follow the river while absorbing the beauty of this early morning scene.

I use to fly an open-cockpit biplane and I loved nothing more that flying in the early summer mornings over canola fields and along river valleys. This was very similar but without all the noise and the wind in the face. In a balloon there is no wind and only the ambient noise to sooth the senses.

After an hour of flying Del decided it was time to look for a landing spot. He took us up a couple of hundred feet and we changed course as the SE breeze caught us again, taking us away from the river and out over a number of fields and parks. I watched in amazement as Del expertly used the vents to turn the balloon this way and that as he carefully studied the fields ahead.

Eventually he picked one and we dropped down low over a stand of trees in preparation for, what felt like, zooming in for a touchdown just as we passed the edge of the trees. It seemed really good to me but Del later said it was harder than a normal landing.

A typical pilot comment!

The chase vehicle found us even before the balloon envelope had deflated and we began the hard part of ballooning, packing it all away in the trailer. I thought we were all done then but Del hauled out a cooler and produced the traditional bottle of champagne. With toasts all around we rehashed the flight, as only pilots do, and enjoyed a perfect ending to a perfect morning.

As we piled into the chase vehicle and headed back I couldn’t help thinking how this was a near perfect re-creation of the very first aviating done by man. I now see why the French downed a bottle of champagne after each flight. What a classy way to fly! I’ll be back for more of this.

Meanwhile, keep your prop spinning, or your burner burning.