If you looked to the skies last weekend, you probably saw the bright colors of the second annual Arizona Balloon Classic, hosted this year in Gilbert.
That being said, I suppose an apology should go to the concerned residents who offered their help in a Chandler neighborhood Friday morning and to the students at Shumway Elementary School, for crashing their morning recess.
You see, I not only saw the balloons, but also had the fortunate opportunity to ride in one.
It was an experience I never thought I’d get to have, but one of the best parts of this job is being able to do different things every day. Sometimes that means doing things that are out of my comfort zone.
I don’t have a fear of flying or necessarily heights, but ladders, cliffs and ferris wheels are things I’d rather avoid. I guess I’m more afraid of falling than the actual height.
But when you’re given certain opportunities, the once-in-a-lifetime kind, you don’t back out of those. Anyone can face her fears for 45 minutes — right?
The Tribune’s Brett Fera and I met at the field next to town hall early Friday morning, sharing coffee and donuts with balloon pilots and their crew as they readied for the first flight of the festival.
Our pilot, Daniel Liberti, grew up in Albuquerque where the annual balloon festival receives international attention. His whole family pilots hot air balloons, including many who participated in the weekend festivities in Gilbert.
As the sun started to peep above the horizon, Brett and I helped pulled the basket out of the trailer behind, unload the balloon out and prepare for take-off.
All around us in the early morning light, colorful balloons slowly grew into tunnels and then bulbs in the grassy field.
"That’s literally a wicker basket," Brett said to me at one point.
And it essentially was. Before I got into the basket, I was a little apprehensive of the flight. However, the woven basket was more secure than I thought. As we slowly drifted upwards, it surprised me how secure I felt.
Surprisingly, I could barely tell when the balloon ascended or dropped down.
As we drifted over the town, I had fun trying to find landmarks. The town’s civic center was easy to spot and the water tower in downtown Gilbert looked so much smaller from the sky.
The view was incredible! It’s such a different view than from an airplane or anything else I’ve ever experienced. The sun was coming up, I felt the chill of the morning air and surveyed the land that just seemed to stretch out forever. Everything was so amazingly different.
Although you can try to control where the balloon moves by angling the blast of the hot air, the wind seemed to play the biggest factor in where we went.
This was entirely fine, since we had a crew member, Rick Brown, following us on the ground with the truck and trailer waiting for us to radio where we would land.
Unfortunately, the "light and variable" wind took us back and forth over Ray Road and didn’t allow us to find a place to land for much longer than the anticipated 45-minute ride.
Eventually, we slowly made our way to the patch of grass next to Shumway Elementary. In the process, we glided and bobbed through backyards. Waving to morning walkers and people leaving for work and school, we eventually landed.
"Hey, cooooool," elementary school kids yelled as they ran around on the playground.
But when you ride in a hot air balloon, you don’t just hop out and head back to your car. As children played on the swings and neighborhood residents watched, we slowly packed up the balloon and the basket over the next half hour.
While Brett missed a few meetings and I started my day later than anticipated, being stranded in a hot air balloon isn’t necessarily a bad way to start the morning.
So if I ever get another chance to fly in a balloon, there will be no hesitation. If you ever have the opportunity, I suggest you jump on it. It’s so different than anything else out there.
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