“Let ’er go!”
The hands relax and fall away. The faces sink and shrink; the whole green world recedes and widens underneath. The basket towers like an elevator for lazy eagles.
The Wasatch Mountains rise like green islands from their green sea. Atop his distant “This Is the Place” monument a tiny bronze Brigham glints among his bronze brethren. The university sprawls across the hill; downtown is prickly with its temple and its towers. The broad silver lake lies northwest. Underneath, walls, fences, hedges, and no-trespassing signs fall before the sky sliders, and they are free. The chaos of a busy city becomes an orderly geometric design. Trucks and factories shrink to size, and all the earthbound hurry and worry retreats into silence. Above there are seven stories of color and flame and then sky forever. The Holladay 21st Ward balloonists are aloft again.
A balloon is not a vehicle. It is a cloud, a moon, a slice of sky, a life raft adrift in space. It is a time machine and a dream. A balloonist seen high and aloof on the horizon sets himself apart as a different sort of person, a person not easily categorized, a person not to be taken for granted, a perilous person if you don’t want to be bothered by imagination.
Balloons are, by definition, a little unreal. It’s hard to believe that a balloonist can be off to any ordinary place. Its easier to imagine him windbound to the kingdom of Prester John, Shangri La, or the streets of Atlantis.
A balloon is somehow mythical and romantic and impossible. To look up from your newspaper and see a huge red, white, and blue balloon looming overhead feels for a second like sighting a phoenix or a roc or a pterodactyl.
The young men of the 21st Ward priests quorum had no such romantic thoughts when they first started ballooning. They thought they had simply climbed aboard a private adventure, but then they looked down and saw cars pulling off the road to watch them pass, crowds gathering in shopping centers, and children running along underneath like figments from a Ray Bradbury novel, and they realized that only half the adventure was private. The other half was going on in the wide eyes of a thousand nameless people on the ground. It was more than a superactivity; it was a sort of service project to renovate imaginations.
The project started when Aaronic Priesthood director Tony Seymour became interested in ballooning and bought a balloon of his own. It occurred to him that it would make a fantastic year-round superactivity, and the quorum members agreed wholeheartedly. They found a sponsor who provided them with a van to transport the balloon and furnished the butane gas for the Saturday flights. In return they carried an advertising banner aloft for him.
Tony brought to the adventure the exalted title of commercial hot-air balloonist, and several of the young men are now close to earning the same title, but the beginnings were a little ragged. Their public debut was before a packed stadium at a BYU homecoming football game. They went aloft tethered to a long rope, but a vicious gusty wind soon aborted the venture. Trying to land they got on top of a fence somehow, and the basket tipped over. Tony ended the rout by pulling the rip panel that opens a slit the length of the balloon and deflates it. About that time the BYU marching band swung into “Up, Up and Away” in a fine touch of gallows humor, and some little boys, seeing the long opening in the side of the $5,000 balloon, made a business proposition. “Hey, mister,” they shouted, “your balloon is broken. Can we have it?”
The offer was declined, and the crew went on to become proficient balloonists. They can assemble, launch, fly, land, and repack the unit with cool competence, observing all safety requirements.
The balloon consists of a basket in which the balloonists ride, butane tanks and burners to heat the air, and a seven-story envelope of nylon. When the burners are fired into the envelope, the hot air rises and the balloon with it.
Instruments keep the crew informed of their altitude, rate of ascent and descent, the temperature of the balloon, and the remaining fuel. They fire the burners to rise or remain where they are. They lose altitude by allowing the air in the envelope to cool.
Properly handled, a balloon is a perfectly safe thing to “hang around” in, and it isn’t nearly as scary as it looks. “I’m sometimes afraid of heights, so I was worried about going up,” one priest says. “The day of the first flight I climbed into the basket and was checking everything to make sure it was shipshape and wondering when we were going to launch and what it would feel like, when all of a sudden I noticed that we were about a hundred feet up already. I looked down and I wasn’t even afraid.”
Another young man describes the experience like this: “It feels like you’re standing in one place and the ground leaves. You can’t really feel any acceleration at all. There’s no feeling of going up. It’s strictly visual. The city just opens up all around you.”
The view from the basket is absolutely panoramic—360 degrees worth—uninterrupted by windows, wings, or walls. And when the burner is not being fired, you are surrounded by a vast silence, interrupted only by the creak of the basket and the barking of dogs. You can carry on a conversation with someone on the ground hundreds of feet below and never have to shout. All alone in the sky you drift, perhaps turning ever so slowly, so slowly you may not make a full turn during the whole flight. You feel no wind because you’re moving with the wind. You are inside it, lulled by an indescribable sensation of freedom, peace, and detachment.
The balloonist has a great respect for nature. He doesn’t try to dominate it with engines, propellers, and rudders. He goes where the wind takes him. He may shop around at different altitudes for a breeze going his way, but he can only take what is offered, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Part of the adventure is seeing where the wind will carry you this time.
As soon as the balloon is launched, the team members not flying that day jump into the van and become the chase crew, a Laurel-and-Hardy adventure team whose duty it is to follow the balloon wherever it blows, untangling a crazy labyrinth of freeways, farm roads, back alleys, and one-way streets in order to be waiting underneath when the basket touches down. With both back- and front-seat drivers and navigators, sometimes unknown and unconventional territory to cover, a capricious wind, and frequent pit stops for food and refreshment, a chase crew madly closing in on a descending balloon is one of the wackiest and happiest happenings of just about any Saturday morning. And yet, in spite of all the obstacles, they’re usually waiting in just the right spot when the basket touches down, and they’ve often saved the balloon crew from serious trouble.
The most difficult part of almost any flight is the landing, especially in flights over a city. It’s sometimes necessary to thread the needle in a field hemmed in by fences, houses, and high tension wires. Dropping out of the sky with a wind behind you into such a field requires a lot of judgment and skill. Just landing in a wide open space with no wind requires a good hand on the burner, firing enough to keep from slamming into the ground like a meteor, but not enough to keep the balloon bounding back up into the sky. When there is limited landing space and a wind, the balloonist cannot afford to stay aloft a moment longer than necessary or he will drift into trouble. Consequently, he begins sizing up landing places as soon as he is in the sky and doesn’t stop doing so until he is safely down. If the landing is hazardous, he may drop a rope to the waiting ground crew who will pull the basket away from danger.
Tony and the quorum have landed on golf courses, parking lots, backyards, front yards, streets, fields, oil refineries, orchards, and a small tree.
Once, flying over the city, they ran low on fuel, and with no wind to carry them clear, they had to land in a densely populated residential area. They dropped a rope to the ground crew who pulled them down into a lady’s front yard, causing a traffic jam of interested spectators. But for the quick action of the chase crew, they would have landed on her roof!
Quorum members still talk about the time they touched down in a remote pasture to change crew members and found themselves right next to two campers who were slumbering peacefully in sleeping bags. The crew quietly made the transfer and, without a word, were off again. Awakened finally by the roar of the burners as the balloon lifted, the sleepers rolled over in time to see a huge balloon hanging in the sky above them. They may still be talking about the fantastic “dream” they both had.
One day, caught in an unexpected windstorm, they sliced over the corner of the state prison and made a panic landing just a little beyond, opening the rip panel just before touchdown. Tony says of that adventure, “We ripped before hitting and slid for 300 feet before the air emptied out. The basket was dragging along on its side. You just crouch down at times like that and pull the rip panel and try to get the thing open. You just close your eyes and hope it stops before you come to the barbed wire fence. Someone from the prison called the sheriff’s department, and they came and checked us out.”
Tony landed the balloon near a busy expressway one afternoon and got out so that a friend who was learning to fly could solo. The pilot was no sooner aloft than he decided it was time to land. Being inexperienced, he pulled the rip panel too soon and came streaming down into the corner of someone’s backyard, draping the canopy over telephone wires. The “someone” turned out to be the local stake president whose neighbors all came over to take pictures and admire the pilot and the just-arrived young men of the chase crew. The president’s wife made lemonade for the pilot, crew, neighbors, Tony—who had enlisted the help of a stranger on the expressway—and the power company linemen who had turned up in a basket truck to get the envelope off the wires. One of the guests came up to the balloonists and said, “Thanks. This is the first time the neighborhood has been together in weeks.”
There was one time when the chase crew didn’t quite make it on time, and the story of their rescue is a sure-to-be-told-tale at quorum get-togethers.
The chase crew, who were pulling a trailer that day, made a wrong turn down a long narrow lane with no room to turn around. By the time they had managed to back out, the balloon had already landed, and no one had been able to see where. While the chase crew searched, the balloon crew was waiting in a strawberry patch where they had landed. It seemed that a hundred people knew exactly where the balloon had come down, and a hundred people were absolutely wrong. Finally, almost two hours later, the bewildered searchers saw a little boy sitting on his bike with all the manly nonchalance of John Wayne on his horse.
“You see a balloon?”
“You know where it is?”
“Will you show us?”
“Yep.” And hunched over his banana seat, legs churning like pistons, the one-man cavalry led them to their stranded companions.
The young men enjoy tethered flights almost as much as the more unpredictable free flights. That’s because they can swing above the ground on a long rope hanging from the basket. It’s literally swinging on a rope attached to the sky. They recently gave ward members tethered flights at a ward outing.
The fickle wind can carry balloonists into some truly quixotic adventures. They flew over Tony’s house one day, and just then the wind died, so they hung there for a while. The milkman came by on his route and looked up and said, “Those guys must be insane!” “That’s my husband,” Sister Seymour replied. Tony had his kids come out, and he talked to them from the balloon, reminding them to brush their teeth. “They’re pretty obedient when you talk to them from the sky,” he says. His little daughter Amy thought quietly about it all day and finally asked, “Mommy, did Daddy die and go to heaven?”
Finally, after months of having the lonely sky all to themselves, the priests flew their balloon with 13 others in a 24th of July contest. It was a sky full of color and motion as the huge envelopes of air rose, bumping each other as they went.
And there are some zany little off-the-cuff adventures that can only happen to balloonists, like the time they all accidentally inhaled helium from a tank used to send up test balloons. They then walked into a drive-in and gave their munchkin-voiced orders to a puzzled waitress.
There are more serious benefits as well. “It’s brought the quorum together for quorum projects,” says a priest. “It’s the first thing that’s come along that really got us behind a common goal.” Another comments, “We didn’t really have a superactivity before this. Ballooning brought us all together and really gave us a way to start activating some of those who weren’t so active.”
What is the lure of ballooning that keeps them coming back week after week at the expense of skiing, swimming, tennis, and other favorite activities? “Man has always had a desire to fly by himself, without any mechanical means,” explains one young man. “A balloon comes closest to that.”
Another says, “Every flight is totally different. You just never really know what to expect. You always meet some nice people, and we’ve had some good talks on the way home.”
“Wherever you go, wherever you land,” declares one hyperbolic balloonist, “there are millions of people around asking questions.”
The common denominator in their answers is people. They like people, and people like them. Wherever they launch or land, crowds appear as if by magic, even in apparently unpopulated areas; cars follow them, and planes dip by for a look.
“You don’t really even have to be introduced to somebody when you’ve just landed on his front lawn,” explains a crew member. “You’ve already got something in common, and when you go by in the van with a balloon painted on the side, people point at you and wave, and you can feel their excitement.”
The crew often talks to backyard kibitzers as the balloon drifts over, and it’s a rare family that doesn’t invite them to come down and land in their yard then and there. A lady came running around the block one day as the basket touched down. She was shouting and waving her arms and was almost inarticulate with excitement. “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” she finally gasped. “I want you to land in my yard next time.”
In another unforgettable incident they landed up against a barbed wire fence and were in the process of packing the balloon to get it back across the fence when an army of youngsters appeared from nowhere. One young lady with red hair, pigtails, and freckles stood watching with huge eyes. Finally she timidly touched the arm of one of the priests as he went past while helping to load the balloon. “Please, sir,” she said, “may I have your autograph?” She got his signature and everyone else’s and went away clutching the paper as if she had conversed with Martians or angels and was taking home the evidence.
What is the magic that makes necks crane when a balloon goes overhead? A crowd watching the young men launch at a mall parking lot gave some answers.
“It’s the intrigue—the old-time feeling of man being able to propel himself with just air.”
“It’s the adventure of it. Something that big, and man can fly it with nothing but a flame.”
“It represents man’s first means of flight. It’s the naturalness.”
“It’s so unpredictable. They don’t know where they’re going to go.”
“I guess everybody would like to be up with the clouds.”
“I love it. It’s like a bird.”
“Freedom! Just being able to do it without any engine or noise.”
“It must be great to be up in the open air with no windows.”
“This is only the second balloon I’ve ever seen. I followed the first one all over town. They’re just in a little basket!”
“It’s a more personal way of flying.”
“I never dreamed they’d use anything so flimsy to get up in the air.”
“It’s pretty and colorful. It’s the same fascination children have with balloons. I don’t know why it is.”
“It’s just a balloon, and that’s reason enough!”
And it is reason enough. Most ballooning means launching in easy weather, drifting peacefully, and coming down softly in an open field with plenty of room to spare, and little excitement, but the adventure is always there nonetheless. It’s there because a balloon is an adventure in itself. Enigmatic, intriguing, mystical, a balloon brings out whatever sleeping spirit of adventure is in every man, whatever lingering desire to trust fate and follow the wind.
They started out to have a good time, but in the process they discovered that they had hung a dream in the sky for everyone to dream together. They mean to keep it there.