Posted on April 11, 2011
The whole point of riding in a hot-air balloon, other than taking in the Asheville area scenery from an extraordinary perspective, is getting a thrill. To be that far from the ground, yet that close, makes it easy to contemplate the horror of plummeting to earth. That jolt of adrenaline is what makes a body feel alive, and at Inn on Main Street we don’t get a lot of life-or-death moments.
We got our money’s worth of adrenaline today when we took a hot-air balloon ride that our daughter had bought us after she was married in a balloon. What started as an exhilarating drift over the Enka area became one of those moments every balloon pilot dreads when the burners that supply the hot air actually burned part of the balloon and melted three or four of the dozens of ropes that connect the balloon to the basket. Someone on the ground saw flames shoot out of the balloon and called the fire department and Channel 13. I was enjoying the view of Mt. Pisgah when the basket suddenly dropped a couple inches and huge burnt flakes, like remnants of newspapers thrown on a campfire, went drifting by. “We have do do an emergency landing,” our pilot said. He radioed the chase crew to get under us immediately, and we were going down in a wooded area with occasional tiny yards and way too many power lines.
Except for an initial exclamation that I found forgivable, our pilot kept his cool. He finessed the balloon down toward a small yard, then blasted us back up above the trees when it looked like a powerline was unavoidable. After brushing the top of a tulip poplar, we began another descent into the same yard, this time a few feet from the wires and with the chase crew under us to pull us by rope to a safer spot. The landing was so soft I couldn’t tell we touched down.
When we got out, I saw that the damage was much greater than I had thought. A hole bigger than a doorway was burned in our side of the balloon, as well as the ropes I had seen from the basket. Our pilot said that had never happened in his 11 years of ballooning. A member of the chase crew said we really weren’t in a lot of danger because you can lose a huge part of the balloon surface and still stay aloft.I don’t know if that was true, or just an attempt to comfort us.
I don’t want to name the balloon company, because I felt they took every precaution and shouldn’t be singled out for what we passengers understood was a very rare occurrence. Mostly, I thought the pilot acted with tremendous grace under pressure. I’d go back up if he’s the one flying.