Finn-Olaf Jones Official Website: Articles and Stories
  home | click here for articles | contact
 
Mar 09, 1998
Basket Cases - Forbes

TO PARAPHRASE TOLSTOY, ALL GOOD HOT-air balloon landings resemble each other. Each bad landing is bad in its own way.

The good landings, which occur more than 99.9% of the time, usually go something like this: your chase crew have successfully followed you in their van to the spot where you want to touch down. You toss them your rope, they brake the balloon's vertical motion and you bring the balloon down as gently as a glass of water. The locals stream out of their houses, offices and fields, and in their enthusiasm start setting up an impromptu feast of the best indigenous booze and goodies they can lay their hands on. You, the pilot, step nimbly from the basket, and are acclaimed by all as some sort of divine hero from the skies; Apollo descended from the heavens.

Then there are the bad landings.

The first time I ever crewed for a balloon, my pilot had a bad landing. Taking off in good weather with a tour group, he proceeded over a small forest with me and two other crew members tracking him from a van. We dutifully drove around to the other side of the forest and waited for him to emerge. The balloon did not appear. We tried reaching him over the CB radio, but got no response. With that special feeling of impending doom we sprang from the van and ran into the forest. Our worst fears were confirmed when we came across torn shreds of the balloon caught in the tree tops, as if giant pranksters had come in and t.p.'d the forest with an immense roll of Charmin.

We eventually found the passenger basket hanging listlessly from a tree, its cords wound around the branches like an octopus clutching for life. Crawling up the tree, we found the pilot soothing the rumpled and wounded passengers who were sprawled about the basket like dirty laundry. A freak wind had pressed the balloon down just as it was trying to gain altitude over the forest, and the balloon got caught in the trees.

Soon local firefighters were on the scene to help get people out of the basket. Casualties: two broken bones, a ruptured kidney and a dead balloon.

The pilot, it should be noted, was out flying the next day.

Balloon bums, like their brethren surf bums or ski bums, arise in the morning with the sole purpose of riding the forces of nature. The balloon bug bites hard; its victims will abandon marriages, mortgages and whatever indoor career prospects they might once have had to chase the air stream around the world.

But it's one thing to be a ski or surf bum, having only to maintain a fiberglass board or two to indulge your passion; a balloon bum needs more than tip money to stay afloat. By the time he's covered the cost of getting FAA balloon pilot accreditation, buying a balloon and related equipment, setting up a propane gas system, hiring a chase crew (or, more commonly, bribing them with booze and the promise of rides) and getting a vehicle large enough to transport everything, a balloon bum might regret he did not take up collecting Impressionist paintings as a hobby instead.

Unless you happen to be Richard Branson, the best chance of staying afloat long enough to be considered a true-blue bum is to hit the balloon tourism circuit. There are certain tribal gathering spots that are home to many balloon outfitters, such as Phoenix, Arizona, and the Masai Mara in Kenya for balloon safaris, or Italy, France and Germany for hot-air cultural tours.

Balloon bums spend their lives seeing the world from the best angles: the African bush from a few yards above lions skulking in the grass; the Loire castles from the middle of the moat or from atop their turrets; Monument Valley from near the summit of the Navajos' holy buttes, upon which tribal law forbids anyone to set foot. For these people, the globe is but a giant take-off site.

The balloon basket is a padded affair, as comfortable as patio furniture, and there is no sense of motion when drifting in it. It's as if the earth has retreated from you and is continuing its rotation beneath you while you stand suspended on a direct line to the unmoving heavens. Most of the time you don't even feel a breeze, because you're moving in the same speed and direction as the wind. Even in the rain and cold you remain snug, with the inflated balloon as your canopy and the propane burners as your fireplace.

"The first balloon I ever saw, I purchased," says Mike Lincicome, who has spent his entire adult life plying the circuit. "It landed at my high school. I was 19 years old and needed to do something crazy. So I completed the FAA course for flying, which coincidentally was given by the pilot who had landed in my school, and he let me buy the balloon when I was through. I've still got it."

Mike's seasonal flight paths are right out of a Phileas Fogg dream: winters in the tropical weather of Equatorial Africa, spring and fall in the American Southwest and summers drifting over the European countryside. This kind of propane-fueled living creates an "If it's Tuesday I must be in Tambacounda" state of mind. "Sometimes when I'm flying in California I absentmindedly find myself scouting for giraffes down below," says Mike.

If balloon bumming were a religion, then Buddy Bombard would rate at least a Pope, and his Lilliputian French castle, the Chteau Laborde, the Vatican. In the late '60s Buddy was a successful Manhattan insurance broker with a desire for more physical risks. One day, the balloon bug bit after he took a flight over the Swiss Alps. "I wrote a check out for my first balloon right after I landed," Buddy remembers. At first, he took care of the bug by bringing associates on balloon jaunts in America and France. His trips were so wildly popular that people began to approach him with obscene amounts of money for standing room in his basket, and he hired another pilot to fly them. Eventually he set up the Bombard Society in the Chteau Laborde to run balloon adventures throughout Europe.

Just about everyone in the balloon-bumming elite has at one point worked for Buddy Bombard. In the roaring '80s, when deep-pocketed tourists doing Europe demanded more of a thrill than a ride up the Eiffel Tower, the Bombard Society employed up to several dozen pilots a year. A pilot could show up at the ramshackle Chteau Laborde and, if he had a good reputation on the circuit, be airborne for another season in the Bombard Society's distinctively colorful balloons.

During a college break, I appeared at the Chteau Laborde with a rudimentary knowledge of a few European languages, a pair of sturdy gloves for hauling rope and an ability to open champagne bottles with a sword; I was hired as a crew member for the summer. It was probably the best job I ever had, if you could call driving around the pristine European countryside engaged in the giant Easter-egg hunt known as balloon-chasing "work."

The key to my job was to be within running distance of the balloon when my pilot wanted to land. He would throw me his rope and I -- and whoever else happened to be around -- would commence a tug-of-war against the wind so the three-ton monster would land straight up. We then folded everything into the van, and poured out enough champagne to keep the guests flying on the drive back to whatever lavish bash Buddy Bombard was hosting that night.

Were someone to draw a picture of the stereotypical balloon pilot, he would probably end up with an uncanny likeness to one of the Bombard Society's most famous pilots, Michel Bergounioux: conspiratorial grin, rakishly curled mustache and twinkling eyes beneath a surgically attached tweed cap of the type that only balloon pilots or Sherlock Holmes would wear. Despite two decades of flying Americans for the Bombard Society and running his own outfit in Arizona, Michel's heavily accented English is still more fit for singing "Thank Heavens for Leetle Girls" than for a pilot's spiel. However, he is one of the world's best pilots, having twice won the French national balloon championship.

"In 1964, I was running a printing company and a classic car shop," recalls Michel. "One day, a balloon passed right over my house. I was so awed by the sight that I got into my car and followed it. Another car was following it as well, and while we were both looking up, we crashed." Balloon lessons soon followed, and before he knew it, Michel was flying full-time.

Michel has flown balloons on every continent. He has seen it all. He even once conducted a funeral from a balloon. "The fellow was an American who realized he was dying, and decided to spend his life savings to bring him and his family over to France to have one last good-bye adventure on a Bombard trip." Unfortunately, he died before the trip started. The family decided to have a balloon farewell with him anyway and brought along his cremated remains which they scattered while drifting over the Burgundy countryside.

Balloon bums more often associate their vessels with the other end of mortality. Airplane aficionados have their mile-high club, but balloon bums have the far more exclusive 1,000-footer club. Ask a pilot about this club, and he will either smile silently or go into the details of the initiation ritual(s) in excruciating detail.

The problem is that sometimes clients take it upon themselves to become members -- an awkward thing if they are sharing the basket with others. Bombarders affectionately remember a particularly flamboyant client, a gray-haired, gold-medallion-wearing model agent from L.A. who brought along his "new friend," a leggy blonde barely old enough to drive, on a ballooning holiday. On one of their first flights, they shared their basket with a guy in a leisure suit from Cleveland and their pilot.

Privacy or no privacy, it soon became painfully apparent that the couple intended to join the 1,000-footer club. Although they tried to be as discreet as conditions allowed, the basket commenced swinging side to side under the shifting weight. The pilot started to earnestly point out petro-chemical plants and other non-scenic items in the opposite direction in order to distract the leisure-suit guy, who was trying hard to maintain a state of denial about what was going on a few inches away.

"Much better to do it when there are just the two of you in the basket, especially since as the pilot you always have to be able to see in front of you," concludes one of my ballooning pals who is credited with many an airborne tryst.

However, most of the intriguing animalistic behavior occurs outside the basket. One of the symptoms of a life spent on the ballooning circuit is a photo album bulging with extraordinary overhead shots of rhinos submerged in water, cheetahs lurking in trees, elephants playing tag with the balloon's shadow (they hate being caught in the shadow, notes Michel) and cows galloping wildly across hill and glen.

About those galloping cows -- they're usually fleeing in panic from the balloon. Cows' ears are sensitive to the bass noise made by the propane burners. Their fear is multiplied by the fact that they often do not notice a balloon until it has drifted within spitting distance and lets out a giant hiss from its burners. Some outfitters have become desperate enough to use special low-compression "cow burners" when flying over grazing areas, but the effect on the critters is still similar to someone sneaking up to you while you are peacefully munching your lunch and screaming BOO RIGHT INTO YOUR EAR.

The burner noise is but a mere prelude to a standard bovine ballet known as "The Dance of the Dying Cow." This ballet comes in two variations: the minimalist version, where the creature will simply keel over right where it stands, or the classical version, where it will jerk into a mad dash across the fields, leaping over anything in the way, a ridiculous sight akin to watching a sumo wrestler jogging. If the pilot is especially unfortunate, the cow's proprietor will rush out to join in the festivities, in which case the ballet becomes a duet entitled the "Dance of the Pissed-Off Farmer." This may occasionally be orchestrated with a firearm.

Don't get me wrong here: most of the time people react positively when balloonists fly over their places (balloon bums get most of their exercise from waving). But beware the pissed-off farmer! Given that landing sites are usually chosen by wind direction, propane level and available space, a pilot is unlikely to know the temperament of the owner of that open space until all three tons of his balloon have landed on it.

The best defense against a pissed-off farmer is to be up-to-date with agricultural prices, especially after landing on one of his unharvested fields. Beets, wheat and other mashed commodities do not cost more than a few cents per balloon-wide track, but it's comforting to know the exact price when surrounded by scowling men armed with menacing weeding utensils. "I regularly call the local agricultural cooperative to get the current prices," says Michel.

The universally accepted price is a free ride -- usually offered as a last resort. One Bombard pilot had to spend every Thursday afternoon for a month flying around a particularly obstinate farmer's family whose pea field he had accidentally plowed up during a landing.

Livestock is another matter.

In the early days of the Bombard Society, farmers regularly approached the Chteau Laborde to demand compensation for cows which had supposedly been scared to death. "Usually they'd tell us it was one of their prize-winning stud bulls, and that we owed them an exorbitant amount, but I soon learned to ask to examine the carcasses, and we saved a lot of money," recalls Michel.

Ironically, despite unpredictable weather and armed farmers, the biggest threat to a balloon bum's continued existence comes when he is on terra firma. Propane is the gas of choice for heating the air that keeps balloons afloat. It is cheap, efficient and available most anyplace. It is also more flammable than Ross Perot's ears. One approaches a propane filling tank in the same way Al Gore approaches a microphone: with min- imal chance of creating sparks. All electrical items in the vicinity must be shut off. Metal objects like buckles or boot tips need to be removed lest they hit something and ignite the gas.

Even the most cold-blooded balloonists will admit to playing out visions of their own personal Hindenburg when filling a tank.

An experienced Belgian pilot recently joined ballooning lore while filling his tanks at night. He did all the right things; he turned off his car lights and radio, removed his belt and gingerly commenced filling the first tank. It was too dark to see what level he was filling the tank to, so he pulled out his lighter to shed some light on the matter.

One estimate is that the propane tank reached an altitude of 300 feet; legend has it that the pilot is now trailing Hale-Bopp.

As with dedicated ski and surf bums, Mother Nature has the final say on a balloon bum's longevity. Her reminders of this fact are not subtle.

Michel Bergounioux's most supreme religious moment during his two decades of flying occurred amid a storm. "I was flying over a vast forest when I suddenly got caught in the worst weather I'd ever flown in," he remembers. "I couldn't find anywhere to land because the trees were too close together."

The balloon was full of Canadian clients, who thought the whole thing was a lot of fun. Michel put on a calm front while trying to find an open spot to land. Unbeknownst to him, an enormous rain puddle started gathering on top of the balloon, which was displacing the hot air that was keeping everyone afloat.

"Suddenly we felt a whoosh! like an elevator accelerating downwards.

We were practically in free fall."

The balloon crashed into a grove of tall saplings, which bent over and managed to give enough resistance to gently halt the basket about four feet above the ground. As one of the Canadians delicately stepped out of the basket, he turned to Michel and exclaimed: "That was a great ride! You are truly an amazing pilot." To which Michel, despite having his heart embedded in his throat and knowing full well that it was only the hand of God that had saved them, thanked the man kindly, smiled, and opened the customary bottle of champagne. l

   
back to top