Eat, Drink, Play: The old-school way to fly
August 18, 2012
The very first hot-air balloon was made of paper and flew in France in 1783.
In those early days, to keep frightened farmers from attacking the balloon when it landed unannounced in their fields, pilots would offer up a bottle of champagne.
Nearly 230 years later, Greg Taylor upholds the tradition unintentionally started by his predecessors with a champagne toast at the end of every flight.
Taylor’s Colorado Hot Air Balloon Rides mountain flight lifts passengers 1,000 feet above the beautiful South Park Valley at sunrise, for an experience that might be without parallel.
So champagne (and a hot breakfast) afterward is really just icing on the cake.
Totally silent and slow moving, the hot-air balloon is a far cry from an airplane, helicopter or almost any other craft that would have previously allowed the average human to experience such heights.
The flight is somewhat dream-like. Set against the pale colors of sunrise and with classical music playing softly in the background, the mountain ride maximizes the peaceful, almost reverent atmosphere inherent in the flight.
But Taylor doesn’t rouse his customers at the crack of dawn – the balloon takes off at 6:45 a.m. – solely to take advantage of the scenic sunrise. In Colorado, it’s the only time he can count on the calm weather he needs to run a smooth flight.
Anything stronger than a slight breeze can make for a tough landing.
Passengers are greeted at the launch site – a shed and a few tables located generally in the middle of nowhere – with hot coffee and snacks before traveling by van to the launch site.
While it is captivating to watch the larger-than-life balloon inflate before take off, once in the air, it concedes its passengers attention to the surrounding views, animals below and strange sensation of floating in mid-air.
The pre-flight anticipation is cold: it was a brisk 40 degrees the morning of my ride, but surprisingly, being up in the balloon is not. Part of that is thanks to the flames periodically spurting out above passengers’ heads to keep the balloon at a toasty 210 degrees.
It’s the heat that allows the craft to fly. The hot air trapped inside the polyester balloon insists on rising, pulling the balloon and basket full of people up with it.
Once aloft, there is no wind, because, as Taylor explains, the balloon becomes part of the wind, drifting with air masses in whichever direction they happen to be traveling.
The pilot has no way to steer, a fact that is somewhat unsettling in the air. But by adjusting the altitude of the balloon, a skilled pilot can catch breezes moving in different directions.
The flights usually last a little over an hour, ending, frankly, wherever the pilot happens to put down. Taylor says he shoots for the dirt roads crisscrossing the valley, but the wind really has more say in where the balloon lands than he does.
Landing can be bumpy, but for my group it was more fun than scary.
When the balloon is deflated and loaded, a van carries passengers back to the meeting site for the champagne toast, a hot breakfast of eggs, bacon and French toast and a special prayer of thanksgiving for a safe flight.
Taylor, who pilots the majority of flights himself, has been in the ballooning business for 16 years.
Originally from the East Coast, it was a love of the mountains, not hot-air balloons that gave birth to his current enterprise.
“I had never even seen a balloon up close,” Taylor told passengers of the time when he started his business.
Taylor owned several pizza franchises in Connecticut, when he decided to fulfill his dream of returning to Colorado, where he had lived briefly when he was younger.
Knowing that he liked owning his own business, he says he stumbled into hot-air ballooning.
Today, he hosts rides for up to 12 passengers from May through October.
The experience is perfect for couples, but not necessarily for families and not for people with a strong fear of heights. Taylor said he’s never had to land a flight early for a nervous passenger, but he has had customers refuse to go up at all after a loved one surprised them with the day’s activity.
Children must be at least 5 years old to fly in the balloon.