Don’t Bounce Off The Trees

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Although we were flying at only two hundred feet, we could see for miles: the occasional deer lurking in the undergrowth of the scrub pines, the neat truck gardens, the white blobs of chicken ranches that litter the Jersey scene, and, from time to time, the pickup truck with two sailors aboard that was following us. I suspect the sailors were having as much fun as we were. Their mission was to track us and to bring us home when we landed. We would see them driving down a road, with us in sight; then the wind would shift, and the truck would have to backtrack, find another country lane, and, as often as not, discover that the road was a dead end, leading to a small sawmill or a cranberry bog.

After about two hours of floating, with each of us taking his turn as pilot, we picked a small open pasture and landed. The landing is always a tricky business. The descent must be very gradual, not abrupt, since the basket will touch the ground at the speed of the surface wind and with a force proportionace to the angle of descent. Anything over five miles an hour can result in bruises and sprains. And at the exact moment the ground is touched, the balloon must be “ripped” by pulling a cord attached to a zipper that runs vertically across its surface, thus releasing the gas almost instantaneously—it is like sticking a pin in a child’s balloon—and allowing the basket to come to a stop.

Our landing was uneventful. No one had a scratch, and the pickup crew was on hand in a few minutes to help us fold the balloon and pack it in the basket. We boarded the truck and, the sun being below the yardarm, stopped at the nearest tavern, where the pilot, as was traditional, bought beers for the cadets and the pickup crew. Then back to the station for long bull sessions with the other guys, who had not yet been so fortunate as to have their first balloon hop.

The second flight I made was pretty much like the first, as I remember, although possibly a little tamer. This was probably because the pilot that day was an older officer. I don’t recall that he let us do any bouncing off the trees; it was probably too rich for his blood, as it would be for mine now. The thing I remember best about the second flight is the landing. After we had cruised for an hour and a half, a summer-afternoon thunderstorm came up. One of the rules was that the balloon was not to be allowed to go into a thunderstorm (the wind blows toward such a disturbance); it should land before reaching it. This was a sensible rule, of course, since no control except that of altitude can be exercised over a free balloon, and the force of air movements within a thunderstorm is such that vertical control is usually impossible. In addition, the added weight of the water can cause considerable difficulty.

The thunderstorm came up suddenly, and we were headed right for it. The wind picked up rapidly while we looked for a spot to land. The area was wooded, and it was several minutes before a suitable space appeared. By that time the wind was blowing about twenty knots, the skies were black, and a few large drops of rain were falling. The pilot, an experienced flier, maneuvered the balloon skillfully into the field and ripped it just as we touched the ground. It was a good landing, but the strong wind caught the fabric of the half-deflated balloon and dragged us, like a drunken ship under sail, a hundred yards across the field before we were able to disentangle ourselves. The damage was slight, but all of us were bruised and stiff the next day. I limped around for a week thereafter.

The next flight I made was scheduled, for some reason, for about eleven o’clock in the morning. We took off on rather short notice, and we forgot to see. that there was any lunch aboard. By one o’clock in the afternoon the fun was beginning to pall a little, and the matter of “When do we eat?” was uppermost in our minds. The pilot this trip, a young man about our age, was a resourceful fellow. We were in a truck-garden area, and the red and green fields of those big Jersey beefsteak tomatoes were below us. Naturally we couldn’t land in a tomato field—it would make gallons of tomato purÖe on the spot. The pilot, however, picked a large field and gently lowered the balloon until it was skimming along, only barely touching the tops of the tomato vines. He maintained that altitude perfectly while my companions lowered me over the side of the basket, and I quickly gathered and handed up a dozen of the most beautiful and delicious tomatoes I have ever seen. We had a fine lunch. This bit of petty larceny was, I hope, forgiven by the farmer. It wasn’t as dangerous a maneuver as it sounds. If I had fallen overboard, I most likely wouldn’t have been hurt. The crew would merely have had to valve “lift” to the equivalent of my hundred and fifty pounds, and I would have been faced with a long walk home.