Hot air balloon fills us with wonder

Published 11:32 am Saturday, August 15, 2015

“Dad! Dad! Come see, come see! A balloon!”

My son runs in from the yard; it’s been a quiet afternoon up until now. Caught up in the excitement, I follow him out the front door. There in the clear blue Plano, Texas sky is a solitary free balloon, basket clearly visible, drifting towards us from the south. For now it’s a fairly small shape, but it’s getting bigger, coming closer and it seems to be losing altitude. We stand, mute, in the presence of the silent traveler. None of us has ever seen a hot air balloon for real. All our memories are from movies or magazines or television. This is the real thing; it’s a hot air balloon in our neighborhood, coming toward our house in Plano, Texas. Up there, just to the right of our neighbor’s television antenna.

I dash back inside the house and grab my camera; a photo opportunity is in the offing. Back outside, the brightly striped object has drifted a little to our west and is obviously on its way to a landing in our vicinity. I know the area fairly well and it looks like the landing will be in a field just across some railroad tracks a short distance from our house. I, and both excited kids, pile into the car and take off toward town. I’ll have to find a railroad crossing in the downtown area; our immediate street has none.

The boys keep an eye on the balloon, I keep an eye on the streets, and we navigate through downtown, across the railroad tracks, and back track to an open field beyond the houses.

It’s a small town, traffic is light, and we find ourselves at the landing site, along with a local (Dallas) television station camera crew and commentator. We park, climb out and trot over to the cluster of people.

The bag (I learn it’s called an envelope) is now carefully strung out on the ground, awaiting storage in its trailer. The basket (I learn it’s called a gondola) sits on its side at the end. A small crowd of mostly kids and a few adults is gathered around the TV camera, and the interview is in progress. I can’t hear the words from my place on the fringe, but the flight, landing, and interview was obviously well planned and executed. Hot air balloons are not easily steered.

A truck, van, trailer and a few cars, including ours, are in a grouping close by on this farmer’s field. This is an actively farmed field, past harvest, and permissions must have been approved in advance. The chase crew was in communication with the aircraft and when the landing site became obvious, television personnel could be on hand for the landing. It’ll probably appear on the evening news; we’ll try to watch.

It’s all very exciting. We walk around the magical craft and closely examine the basket and envelope. We’ve never seen a hot air balloon close up; we’ve never seen a television field crew close up, either. The basket is aluminum framed and fire produces the means for the craft to fly.

A pair of propane burners is affixed to overhead cross-members of the gondola, directly beneath the opening into the envelope. A propane tank is carried inside the gondola. The only control of the craft is by short or long blasts on the burners. That hot air feeds directly into the bottom of the very large, colorful envelope. Hot air provides the lift necessary for flight. Allowing the air to cool decreases lift and the craft descends. I suppose knowing when to light the burner and when to let it cool off is the art involved in free balloon flight. There’s a large “dump” valve in the top of the envelope to allow air egress for controlling ascent and for landing. When the gondola touches the ground (hopefully, at a slow speed), the valve is tripped and the envelope rapidly collapses.

Horizontal movement is by the grace of prevailing winds. It’s been a fairly calm day with very light southerly winds. They allowed the balloon and crew to drift from the south, pass near our house and land in this field. Had the winds been from the north, we would not have this wonderful experience; the boys would not have seen the craft at all. It’s a good day.

We return home, full of the wonder of hot air balloons and TV cameras.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at