Hello Jeff, I say, half asleep.
Weather looks good. Well see you at 4:30, he says, in his usual chipper voice.
My eyes are still closed as I roll out of bed. Im too tired to make coffee, so I slap myself on the cheek. I get dressed and head out the door.
When I drive to work, even the stoplights are asleep. They remind me with their blinking lights, telling early commuters they should go back to bed. But as the rest of Northern Michigan sleeps, Im on my way to help launch a hot air balloon.
Last summer I started working for Grand Traverse Balloons. I had never been in a hot air balloon, nor did I know the logistics of flying one. My boyfriend, a crewman of four years for the company, had convinced me to apply.
This will be my second summer crewing, and since graduating college this spring, I have recently started my job as the office manager, or answerer of the phone calls. I never knew how many people want a hot air balloon ride to be part of their summer adventure, until now.
Yes, there are faster modes of transportation. They get us from point A to point B without much attention paid to whats in between. We have cars to get us to work and airplanes that take us to Hawaii. And although ballooning may be considered an old technology, it hasnt lost its appeal. Cars will pull off to the side of the road, their passengers craning their necks upward to catch a glimpse of the flying, colorful orb.
Although our feet never leave the ground, Ive learned that our job as crewmen is important.
We have one simple duty: help launch and land a safe flight while providing a memorable experience for the passengers. No one has more of that responsibility than my boss, owner and pilot Jeff Geiger. To assure he has little to worry about in the air, every flight follows a step-by-step process from beginning to end.
During that process, we deal with not only expensive equipment but very large and heavy equipment. The wicker basket built to hold 10 passengers, plus pilot, weighs more than 1,000 pounds. And a heavy basket means a heavy-duty balloon. Jeffs current balloon, respectively dubbed, On Target, is made of 210,000 cubic feet of nylon fabric. We in the balloon business call this fabric the envelope.
It fits into a comparatively small canvas bag that must be packed after each flight. Sweat pours from our foreheads when we pack those 600 pounds of fabric into a three-by-six-foot bag. So, to lighten the work load, we encourage passengers to participate in this authentic ballooning experience.
The envelope is tall, to say the least. At 80 feet tall, its higher than an eight story building. The manufacturer, Cameron Balloons, is based in Ann Arbor. Cameron built the Breitling Orbiter III, the first hot air balloon to fly around the world.
Jeffs balloon isnt built to fly around the world, but it can withstand up to 500 flight hours. This summer, On Target is nearly halfway through its life expectancy at 200.
Before each flight, the envelope is laid out on whatever grassy field were at for the day. To fill it with air, two crewmen control inflator fans while two others control the top vent. We do this by attaching a flap with Velcro strips. Each strip has a number, which corresponds to its placement on the main fabric.
With the fans on high, the nylon fabric monster unfolds itself. Its belly fills and rolls about the grass. Then, as if giving it life, Jeff turns on the pilot lights and sends a stream of hot propane gas into the colorful orb. The balloon seems to roar with each shot of hot air and rises with a smooth, fluid motion.
This is when passengers start to get excited. We tell them to watch out for holes and other hazardous objects as they step back to take in the massive view. Ironically, this time is also the most hazardous. One woman, trying to get the best angle for a picture, once stumbled into a gopher hole and broke her ankle. Fortunately, she wasnt a passenger and, after they made sure she had a way to the hospital, her family jumped into the balloon and ended up having a marvelous flight.
Gopher holes aside, safety is our number one concern. Before the flight, each passenger is given a Federal Aviation Administration mandated life vest and told about the emergency lifeboats attached to the side of the basket. Parachutes would make more sense to me, but if youre going to fly in Northern Michigan, theres always a chance you may go swimming.
According to Jeff, the beauty of flying in this area is also the most difficult part. We have a large amount of water, which includes several nearby lakes and both arms of Grand Traverse Bay.
Its easier to fly in other places, Jeff says, but this area is one of the most beautiful places Ive ever flown.
Jeff, who started out as a crewmember and earned pilot certification in 1986, has flown all over the world California, Mexico and Africa, to name a few.
I have personally gotten to know the Traverse City area better, just by taking the numerous back roads while chasing. Crewmembers follow the balloon in chase vehicles to meet it when it lands. In the process, we tend to accumulate a parade of vehicles with people wanting to see the action. Sometimes they can get in the way, blocking an essential entrance to a field or driving painstakingly slow at balloon-watching speeds.
And because it literally goes wherever the wind blows it, On Target doesnt always take off where it lands, thus, the importance of Jeff having a close relationship with local land owners.
Mark Bancroft, of Rolling Meadows Farms, just south of Traverse City, even takes offense when Geiger doesnt land on his 300-acre property.
We wish he would do it more often, Bancroft says. Its kind of a novelty when he does land. The neighbors come out and see it. Theyll talk about it at church the next day.
Sometimes landowners get involved by helping us pack up the envelope. Bancroft and his sons have helped on numerous occasions, using the hard-working discipline only farmers possess to get the job finished quickly. Afterwards, its a firm handshake and an invitation to land there again.
Geiger wouldnt have been so welcome 200 years ago. When ballooning started in France, farmers emerged from their houses with pitchforks after spotting the alien-looking craft landing in their fields. So, to show they were harmless, balloonists brought champagne to offer the landowners a tradition that stands today.
PERMISSION TO LAND
Sometimes I find myself knocking on a door, a dog barking from somewhere inside, and a landowner opening the door warily with the suspicion that I am there to sell them something. I quickly say, Hi, my name is Erin from Grand Traverse Balloons and this may sound like a weird question; but, can we land our hot air balloon in your hay field?
I never expect pitchforks, but offer gift certificates and champagne just in case. They look at me surprised and dont answer right away. But when I add the deal-sealer that they can watch, shoes go on, Fluffy gets told to be good, and theyre running with me to the backyard.
Although Ive learned a great deal about ballooning, Ive also learned a lot about people. I have found adults can still be young. They are like little children scared, excited, curious. They wave their arms in excitement as the basket lifts weightlessly into the sky and laugh when it skids back down to Earth.
When I see honeymooners, sisters keeping a pact or a woman celebrating her 80th birthday, I appreciate the role I play in their adventure. We may always be rushing from A to B and worrying about the gas that gets us there. But, we will always find time to glide, and just go wherever the winds blow us.
Its those moments when I really love my job, and I really dont mind waking up so early. But then again, I always enjoy a sunset.
Interested? Check out their website at www.grandtraverseballoons.com.