ASHLAND — It’s all about the wind.
The wind decides whether or not balloons can fly and where they go. After all, there’s no steering wheel on a hot-air balloon.
Thursday night the wind was blowing at a pleasant 11 miles per hour. Good enough for us on the ground, but a bit too fast for hot-air balloon flight. So we waited.
Luckily, after half an hour, the Balloonmeister raised the green flag, meaning that balloons were free to take off. This set in motion a flurry of events occurring around me while I stood in the basket of “Zee-nith,” the balloon I would fly in.
My pilot, BalloonFest veteran Alex Jonard who hails from Sycamore, Illinois, barked orders to his friends and family members around the balloon.
“Move me to the left! We need two people holding me down! Cut the fan!” he shouted.
After a few minutes of hectic balloon launching, we were in the sky.
I will admit that I am not a man of steel; the prospect of going up in the sky in a basket scared me a bit. But once I was up there, it was like nothing else I had ever experienced.
It was so quiet. The only sounds were the wind, our voices, and the occasional blast of the burner.
I turned and saw the entirety of Ashland University shrinking into the distance behind me. I turned again and could literally see my home. In front of us was farmland, homes and a sea of green.
The best way I can describe the physical sensation of being in a hot-air balloon is like you’re standing on a slow-moving skyscraper. The balloon only traveled 7 to 10 mph. We weren’t quite high enough to start touching clouds.
Jonard, consulting his tablet device after the flight, said we had flown south for just under 2.5 miles at 1,200 feet.
It wasn’t until we started approaching the ground that I felt like we were moving quickly.
Speaking of landing, it was quite an involved process. We had to find a yard or field that was large and not growing cash crops. We also had to keep our eyes out for power lines, lest we get ensnared and possibly electrocuted.
“10 miles per hour, huh? This will be an interesting landing,” Jonard said as we began to descend.
As we got closer, he told me to bend my knees in case we hit the ground and the basket tips over. Below me, I could see our chase crew running in a field to catch us.
When we touched the ground, the basket did tip a bit, but it remained upright for the most part. Jonard’s crew grabbed us and held us down while they maneuvered us into a position where the balloon could deflate freely.
After a few minutes of positioning, they gave me the go-ahead to hop out of the basket. My feet met solid ground again, and Jonard’s crew got to work.
The chase crew, by the way, included a team of 13 people from Jonard’s family and some friends. It also included my colleague, Dillon Carr. The team’s main focus during the flight was to track Jonard and me. They did this by using their eyes and a CB radio mounted inside the truck used to carry the balloon system.
Jonard’s wife, Monica Jonard, said she typically uses an app on her device to track the flight. But that app, on this particular evening, was out of commission. She didn’t mind, though.
“I’m old school. I grew up chasing by sight,” she said.
Her mother, Judy Huth, became one of the country’s first 50 female hot air balloon pilots in 1974. She then followed in her footsteps when she got her license to fly in 1989, shortly after meeting Alex.
The crew had to “milk” the air out of the balloon by squeezing it, laying on it, and rolling around on it. Once the air was out, they held the balloon from end to end while it was rolled back up into its carrying bag.
The carrying bag itself isn’t massive. It’s about as big as a beanbag chair. It weighs 152 pounds, and the entire hot-air balloon system came in at 630 pounds total. That was all it took for me to take to the skies, 630 pounds — a far cry from the tons of metal and electronics that make up commercial aircraft.
Everything was packed up in about 20 minutes.
Oh, and if you enjoy numbers, here’s some more. If you’ve ever wondered how much it costs to get into ballooning, Alex Jonard said it would cost around $50,000 to $60,000 to buy a whole system, which includes the envelope, a basket and various supplies.
That doesn’t include a vehicle to carry and store the system. It also doesn’t include ongoing costs like buying propane for fuel, insurance and an annual inspection.
But if you race hot-air balloons, like Alex Jonard, your winnings could help offset some of those costs. He bought his first balloon with winnings back in the day.
After my experience, I think everyone should go up in a hot-air balloon at least once. It’s a truly special experience flying through the open air. And if you’re a journalist, like me, you can get an article out of it.