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A Yankee Notebook

October 10, 2011


LONDONDERRY, NH - Just as dawn lightened the sky above the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, Paul DePew released a helium-filled, medicine ball-sized mylar balloon. Craning our necks and trying not to fall over backwards, we watched it climb through the bumpy surface air and into the prevailing breeze a few hundred feet up. It began a slow drift northeastward. “Okay,” said Paul. “I know where we’ll take off. Let’s go!” We piled into our three vehicles and followed his white box trailer, with a hot air balloon inside, east on New Hampshire Route 102.

We pulled into a large empty parking lot with a broad green field beside it. The lot was for an office building, and it was Saturday. Balloon guys, apparently, know things like this; Paul had permission to use the field. He backed the trailer to the edge of the grass.

First out of the trailer was the wicker basket – surprisingly large and heavy, with a silvery propane canister in each of its four corners and the burner mounted above it on a quadripod. Then came a large duffel bag, about four feet square and a couple of feet high, with the balloon bag inside. That was heavy, too: over 200 pounds. As the crew opened it and we began to carry it away from the trailer, paying out the balloon as we went, Paul’s wife, Jennifer, warned, “Watch your feet! The wild geese have been using this field.” And so they had.

While the crew spread the balloon flat, Paul fastened the basket to its circular lower rim with woven steel cables. Not too complicated, but obviously exacting: carabiners with screw gates, bolts and nuts with cotter pins, and everything just so. He mentioned that the balloon had just undergone its required annual safety inspection, which I found reassuring to contemplate.

We’ve all seen brightly colored balloons flying over New England’s hills – sometimes, during festivals, dozens of them – and we all know that they’re dependent upon benevolent weather conditions for their safe operation. But there’s a lot that escapes us till we get a closer look. We’d been looking at weather maps for a couple of weeks, and had watched last weekend’s high pressure slowly approach from the west. It blew in on brisk breezes, but Saturday we were quiet in the heart of it. Still, Paul clearly wanted to get airborne before things began stirring too much.

The aspirations of humans to fly go back unknown centuries, but balloon flight back only to the 18th, when an inventive Frenchman, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, noticed how clothes drying on a line were lifted by hot air (which he thought was an undiscovered gas) from a nearby fire. After experimenting indoors with boxlike chambers, one of which smacked into his ceiling, he and his brother Jacques-Etienne began building balloons. Etienne made the first untethered manned flight in 1783. Progress in ballooning was modest – building a fire under a combustible bag that’s holding you hundreds of feet above the ground can be nerve-wracking – while gases like hydrogen and helium substituted for hot air, until the portable propane heater came along.

Once our balloon envelope was deployed, two of the crew – there were four: a daughter, her boyfriend, and a couple of former balloonists – held up the semi-rigid opening at the bottom, Paul started a large gasoline-powered fan not unlike a residential attic fan. The balloon began to billow and come alive. Its multicolored interior, writhing as it filled, was a psychedelic cavern.

Paul, armed with a heavy-duty sparking stove lighter, had already tested the propane tanks, the burner, and the redundant backup burner. Now, as the crew tipped the basket toward the inflated, but still-recumbent balloon, he began firing hot air into it. Almost immediately it rose over the basket. We tipped the basket up onto its bottom skids, and three of us climbed in: Paul, Steve the videographer, and I. The crew held tight to the basket while we got in; if it takes off without its full complement, there’s apparently no turning back. The basket lifted and shifted slightly on the ground. “Let go!” Paul shouted to the crew. They did, and we slowly climbed above the trailer, the shrubs beside the driveway, and the pine trees beyond, drifting slowly east-northeast.

Floating just above the white pine and pin oak treetops, we looked straight down on ponds, back yards, and roads winding through subdivisions. People came out onto their Saturday-morning decks in bathrobes to wave at us. Dogs barked at the roar of the burner. Running through my head were lighter-than-air songs – ”Would you like to fly in my beautiful balloon?” and the waltz from the finale of [it] Iolanthe: [it] “Soon as we may, off and away! We’ll commence our journey airy.” Once, when Paul hollered down to a spectator, “Where are we?” I half-expected that classic line from [it] Bert & I: [it] “You’re in a balloon, you damn fool!” Most of all, I was thinking, “Wow! This is new! And lots more interesting than what I expected.”

What was getting interesting was where we were going to land. The forest beneath us was promising no open fields. Yet Paul seemed confident we’d come across a suitable spot any time. Sure enough, as we loomed over a cul-de-sac at the end of a residential road blessedly free of power lines, he declared, “This is it!” and began venting hot air from the top of the bag. We descended pretty rapidly, angling toward an open front yard. Paul shouted down to a high school boy looking up, “Come over here, will you, and grab hold of this basket when we touch down.” The kid came running. We skimmed through the top branches of a flowering plum and plopped down beside a blacktop driveway. The boy pulled the nearly weightless balloon toward the center of the road; neighbors came popping happily out of houses to join the excitement; the chase cars arrived; and just like that – and far too soon – it was all over but the packing everything back into the trailer.

Photo by Willem lange