Commentary & Opinion
12:35 pm
Sun August 11, 2013

David Nightingale: A Christmas Gift Of A Flight In A Hot Air Balloon...

10 years ago, the late Steve Fossett went round the world in such a contraption, and 20 years ago Richard Branson and Per Lindstrom sat in a basket all the way from Japan to Canada, rising right up into the 250 mph jet stream.

We stand on a Middle School playing field, 12 of us, watching our balloon being unraveled, 40 feet long on the grass. 12 people means about a ton.

In Luxor, Egypt, after a fire, 18 people in a basket shot into the air and then plummeted to their deaths.

It was France's Montgolfier brothers who began this, in 1783...

Our balloon takes on a whale-like shape on the grass as air is blown into it's 10 or 12 foot wide opening. There's an “L”-shaped tear, about a foot on each section of the “L”. Should we tell the pilot?

It's not a balloon, like a helium party balloon; it would be more accurate to describe these things as umbrellas.

We'll only rise 1500 feet. It's 7 pm on the last day of July – maybe our own last day on earth. People chat and laugh nervously, and with my usual 'what-ifs', I'm sincerely terrified.

Vijaypat Singhania rose to a height of 69,000 feet above Bombay, India, in 2005 in a hot air balloon. Humans need oxygen after 12,000 feet. [Ref.1]

Should I tell our pilot about that tear? How could he not see it?

This is how it works. The air will get heated by roaring propane flames. Hot air always rises. Another way to see it is: hot molecules rush back and forth at much greater speeds than cooler ones, and will be hitting the underside of the top of the umbrella way faster than the molecules outside.

No sideways control, just up or down. To come down faster there's a little rope that will open flaps at the top and let some hot air out. Those are the total controls.

We are ordered into our final prison cell, a stiff basket divided into two sections, with rubber railings. We are next to the pilot, now blasting the propane flames. We are gently rising from the school field. The flames are deafeningly loud, and the heat is burning the tops of our heads. The pilot offers me a baseball cap.

What if, what if. When the propane flame is off all is pleasantly silent. But not for long; blast noise and heat. We're above the streets; the Hudson is winding below us; Lake George is 10 miles away, far to the left of our drifting route. The dark grey evening clouds actually look wonderful – but I have work to attend to, biting my nails, praying we don't suddenly plummet, or the flame burn through the ropes, or that tear suddenly rip wide open...

Steve Fossett swam the Dardanelles, ballooned from S Korea to Canada, crossed the Atlantic in a catamaran in 4 days, piloted a single engine jet around the world…

There's a field ahead, and our pilot is drifting down over the forest, telling the chase truck  that he may make the field. No, we are too far to the left. Blasting the flames again – still no singed rope – we go a little higher, but there are no fields. Will we have to come down on the infinite Adirondack tree tops, puncture our bodies, hang like kittens that climbed too far? No left or right control. Ah – another small opening. But again we seem too far to the left.

He's going to try and make it. There's a farm house. Instructions to the chase vehicle, for we have lost sight of each other. Brushing the tip of a tree it looks like we are going to make this lucky field.

Terra firma. Bounce. Some more propane blasts, and he's trying to scrape us closer towards a farm lane. Never mind the tick-laden squishy long wet grass – we're alive.

Steve Fossett, Montgolfier brothers, what were you thinking of!

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text,  A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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