unseen but much appreciated crew of supporters waits in the wings.
That's certainly the case with the Edmonton Balloon Club.
Despite more than 20 years of membership in the 33-year-old non-profit
group, Rob Esau has only been flying a half-dozen times, and it's not
because he's a well-grounded guy. He is, but more than that, the club's
current president is a selfless lover of all things balloon and likes to be
the wind beneath his pilots' wings as much as he likes to be the passenger
in the basket.
"The chasing part is just as fun," Esau says.
"Many members participate first as ground crew. Once they work six flights,
they get a flight at cost. It's how we reward people."
Not unlike birds, hot air balloons are smooth and majestic in flight, but
clunky and awkward on the ground. The massive canopies that are beloved by
realtors and phone book makers the world over require careful handling
during set up and take down. A rip in what ballooners call the envelope can
mean a $15,000 balloon has to be garbaged, so the more helpful hands, the
Once the fabric is unfolded and connected to the basket, the crew holds
tether ropes that lead to the canopy's crown while the pilot fills the
balloon with air heated by a propane burner.
Once the balloon is full and pre-flight checks are complete, up it goes, and
Esau's favourite part of the flight begins — the chase.
"It's not difficult to keep track of it because the balloon isn't flying
fast," Esau says, and the chase vehicle maintains constant radio contact
with the pilot, who has a bird's eye view of any traffic snarls or road
"If the balloon crosses a river, then the chase crew needs to find the right
bridge in order to keep with it, but they always carry good maps, and map
reading skills are necessary."
Before launch, pilots have a general sense of where they want to land. To
glean more information about how the winds are blowing at different
altitudes, they launch an everyday party balloon filled with helium and
observe its course for 10 minutes or so. Like the little balloon, Esau says
once a hot air balloon launches, it flies at the mercy of the winds and
according to the skill of the pilot, who has the hard task of "reading" the
wind and feeling which wind at which altitude will carry the balloon in the
For many pilots, the club is stop No. 1 in pursuing a licence to fly. While
commercial companies do most of the passenger flights in the city, the club
is responsible for training many of the area's new pilots and educating the
general public about ballooning.
"You can learn from any other pilot but many don't want to train others, so
that's where we come in," Esau says.
Would-be pilots can begin working toward certification at age 16, but
becoming certified is costly and time consuming, as each trip requires $40
to $50 worth of propane, the time of a mentoring pilot, fuel for chase
vehicles, balloon rental and other expenses. Candidates must also complete a
ground training course, log nine hours of flight time and pass two exams to
gain Transport Canada's blessing.
The club is acutely aware of what having too few pilots means. This summer
its main pilot was grounded by health problems and the number of flights
dropped drastically. Esau says the club has enlisted another pilot and plans
to fly as much as the weather will allow. While fall's colours are amazing
from up high, winter offers some of the best ballooning because the air is
more stable and gives better lift.
"The balloon can carry more in cold weather because you can get the same
lift using less hot air. But at the same time, it's no fun flying in -20 C.
There's plenty of heat on your head from the burner, but there's nothing on
The feeling of sailing on the wind is something that Esau describes well,
but it's clear that it's one of those things that has to be experienced to
"It's so quiet and calm up there. The balloon is so smooth and there's no
breeze whatsoever. You can hear dogs barking on the ground," Esau says.
Optimum flying conditions are winds of five to 10 kilometres an hour, no
moisture and stable air masses. If there is no breeze, the balloon will rise
but not travel, but if there is too much wind, set up and take down become
too dangerous to the crew and balloon. It's when the breeze is perfect that
ballooning really hits its height. The balloon moves with the air current,
giving the sensation there is no wind.
Although pilots must fly a minimum of 305 metres above cities and towns,
rural flying allows them to pull out moves like skimming the tops of trees
so passengers can pluck leaves or splash-and-gos, where the basket skims the
surface of lakes and then ascends again.
Once pilots have leaf-grabbing and lake-skimming down pat and are competent
air readers, it's time for them to hit some of the many worldwide ballooning
festivals that test their skills by having them fly new locales and try to
land at specific points. For ground crews, though, the sport is in the
chase, and the uncertainty of where a rig will land is what gives ballooning
its great sense of adventure and excitement.
"The chase crew always tries to obtain permission to land in advance, and we
try not to land near crops or animals," Esau says.
"Most people are great because who wouldn't want to meet a friendly bunch
and share a glass of champagne once the balloon is down?"
As important as the pre-flight check is, so too is the 200-year-old
tradition of lifting a glass to a successful flight. It's all part of
ballooning's allure, Esau says.
"It's really just a great way to socialize."
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