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Winging It! With Dr. Paul

Hot Air

"It's an airship," Stan insists as he hauls the gondola down from the bed of the pickup truck. "Balloon is what you do on a bad landing." It's 5 AM and the sun isn't even up yet. I should still be home in my warm bed, and here I am in the middle of a pasture, helping to straighten out a canvas bag that's actually going to carry me aloft! I've come to experience, for the first time, another aspect of flight. Stan is here to shatter my illusions.

He gooses the circus tent with a hot hurricane, and it inflates to the size of Chuck Yeager's ego. Soon we stand at Ground Zero, the mushroom cloud overhead blotting out the sky. Licks of flame from a propane blowtorch are all that keeps the fabric from enveloping us.

Everybody recalls David Niven in Todd-A-O, floating silent and serene above the French countryside, champagne glass in hand, butler at his side, pocket watch ticking incessantly. I'm here to tell you that image was created on a Hollywood back lot. Ballooning was never like that! For one thing, it's bumpy. An airship flies in lurches and starts; the gondola bobs like a pendulum in a gale. Without a wing to stabilize your craft, you're likely to turn quite green. As I do.

And what of the quiet serenity? Forget it! Imagine yourself standing inches below an intermittent blast furnace. Just as you begin to focus on the panorama below, the forge reminds you that it's Vulcan's power alone that's keeping you aloft.

"Where are we going?" I ask my wife whenever she takes me up for a weekend flight, and she always answers "Whichever way the wind blows." This time, that answer is quite literally the case. Ever wonder how a hot air balloon - er, airship - turns without rudder or ailerons? I do, aloud, and Stan shows me. It's a constructive application of windshear. Every pilot knows the winds aloft are never from the same direction as those on the runway. This inferno is navigated by noting the wind direction at various altitudes. Want to turn a given direction? Simply climb (or descend) until you find a wind that's going your way.

It's choppier than usual today, Stan allows as I struggle to maintain my dinner and composure. Time to set it down. Pulls a cord and the top of the gas bag opens, canopy starts to deflate, and we're descending. Right toward the biggest power lines this side of Hoover Dam. Three quick blasts on the blowtorch, and we bounce over the wires, skirt along a creek, thump down hard into an alfalfa field. I start to breathe again.

The flight is over. The chase truck arrives, the obligatory champagne cork is popped, and Stan offers me a glass. "No thanks," I respond. "Think I'll go out and fly a real aircraft now."

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