There’s nothing like the view from a hot air balloon. If you haven’t been on a balloon ride before, don’t consider them just for the tourists that visit Arizona. The whole experience is less about where you are and more about the actual experience of being high in the sky without anything around you. It’s as close as most of us will ever get to actually flying like the birds. Bring your camera because hot air balloons make great pictures.
A simple call to Hot Air Expeditions in Phoenix booked me on a spring afternoon flight. We’d had a lot of rain, but I hoped for a break and got one with the skies blue and pollution zero. A few clouds hovered in the distance but not enough to scare anyone off.
We met in the parking lot of the Deer Valley Airport in North Phoenix off of I-17. It’s an easy spot to gather, and watching the planes take off and land, it gets you in the mood for being aloft. Three vans leave full of passengers, some bringing tourists from Scottsdale resorts, and others waiting for us locals that want to see what our house looks like from a mile up. We are quite a crowd, with couples from all over the United States and Canada, a family with a young teenager up for some adventure, and a couple from Fountain Hills. We’ll be flying in 3 balloons – the baskets differ in size depending upon the number of guests they’ll have that day, but the average size fits about 12 people. Though it seems like a dozen is a bit of a crowd, once you’re aloft, there is plenty of room to get a view of the world without someone else in the way.
One van takes off first and the others follow, keeping in touch by radio. We head to an empty field south of Carefree Highway and East of I-17. This area was once a prime take off area, but the housing development is quickly making the area impossible for balloons. They send up a helium balloon to test wind speed and direction, and decide that the site isn’t quite right. Ideal is wind speeds under 8 M.P.H. – too windy and inflation gets difficult and landings a little tricky. Apparently, something’s not quite right here, so we all head out for the empty land south of Carefree Highway and West of I-17.
There’s much more free space here. In fact, we drive for 10 minutes on a muddy, rutted road that had passengers joking about getting a jeep tour as well as a balloon ride. But the result is worth the bumpy ride, as the vans stop in a serene, quiet area that seems far from development.
We sign something that says we know that ballooning is potentially a hazardous activity. Meanwhile, the crew jumps out to set up and inflate the balloons, and what results is one of the most beautiful sights of the day: Three giant swaths of color slowly filling with air, covering the ground and the sky. Like lumbering giants, the balloons slowly fill, aided by giant fans pushing air into enclosure. The heavy wicker baskets connected to the balloon start on their sides, but sway upright as the balloon is fully inflated. I’m lucky enough to climb inside one as it makes that journey, carried by the buoyancy of the balloon.
The rest of the passengers climb inside, and it’s not long before we’re in the air. The pilot of our balloon is an experienced balloonist, Captain Mike. He’s dressed in a white captain’s shirt, imparting a vague feeling that we’re about to depart on “The Love Boat.” He reminds the passengers several times that we are not to get out of the balloon until he tells us so. Apparently, there is more than one story about passengers that have climbed out of a balloon as it reaches the ground but before it is tethered, and, according to the laws of Physics, a balloon one person lighter will just take off again, leaving that lone person wondering where his fellow passengers are going. We chuckle, but take his advice seriously.
The air starts to cool as the balloon quickly climbs to about a mile above ground. The view is awesome, and the world is quiet except for the occasional roar of the propane pushing heat into the balloon. Tourists admire the landscape and the nearby mountains, while I look for my house in Anthem. Lake Pleasant is off in the distance, and we can see (and hear) Ben Avery Shooting Range a little closer. Black mountain in Cave Creek is clear as well. The desert is green, a condition that we all know is quite unusual because of the plentiful winter rains. He instructs everyone to look for wildlife, but frankly, there is none to be seen. Perhaps the morning flights may be better for wildlife viewing.
Wind currents differ at different altitudes, and Captain Mike drops something (I’m not sure what and not sure I want to ask) and watches it fall to the ground. He’s looking for the altitude where the wind is going in the direction he wants to go. Today, the wind isn’t doing much of anything, but that doesn’t really spoil the adventure, because there is plenty to see for miles in every direction. Every few minutes, Captain Mike pulls some rope that turns the basket around so every passenger has a different view. Just about at our altitude, a propeller stunt plane flies by and does a few acrobatic stunts, for our benefit perhaps?
After about an hour, we land, and the crew on the ground moves in with their truck to help. They set up a portable picnic table with appetizers and champagne, which, throughout hot air balloon history has been served after a balloon flight. While we get to know each other, the crew deflates and folds the balloon. There’s an incredible amount of logistics behind managing people and the balloons. After seeing the attention and experience the crew takes to every detail of the adventure, I can see why the whole 4 hour event costs over a hundred dollars. By the time the champagne bottle is finished and the balloon is packed back in the truck, the sun gave us a final show, setting behind the mountains.
I’ve never been up in a balloon before this adventure, and now have to say that it should be one of those things everyone should put on his list of “things to do before I die.” Do you take a balloon adventure here, or some other place? I’m thinking a balloon expedition in the south of France would be cool, but just in case I never go, perhaps just down the street from where I live is the best place of all. It won’t be long before these balloons will no longer be seen from our back yard. Development is eating up all the open space and the balloon companies will have to move on in a few years. But for now, we have a unique opportunity to get a true “bird’s eye view” of where we live.
For more information: Call: Hot Air Expeditions: 800-831-7610
About the Author:
Liz Suto is a real estate agent, author and educator, as well as Condo Mania team leader for:
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