Rise and Shine
It’s 6 AM in the morning in Gallup, New Mexico and I’m getting out of bed and preparing to cross one of the bigger items off of my bucket list. I’m a little bit nervous but, I’ve always wanted to ride in a hot air balloon and I’m finally getting the opportunity! Today, my wife, son and I have a ride booked with X-Treme-Lee Fun Balloon Adventures, a true hot air balloon experience in Gallup, New Mexico.
I will set the mood so you can get an idea of what I experienced. I am worried, I have not had enough coffee. It’s dark and fairly chilly outside but it’s time to get up and… well, go ballooning. We head down to the lobby of our hotel for a quick breakfast, my stomach is aching for pancakes, but nervous. My brain is saying you need to maintain composure, you have been on this earth 53 years and the time to balloon has come.
Just then we see a truck pull up to our hotel with a trailer with a graphic of a beautiful hot air balloon. It’s the pilot, I instantly feel reassured.
We walk outside and meet the owner X-Treme-Lee Fun Balloon Adventures, Bill Lee. He shares a little bit about what to expect, which he said will be breathtaking views of beautiful red rock canyons and monumental rock spires and formations. He also answered several of our questions about the ride and immediately took our collective nervousness from a 10 down to 4.
Bill also shared that as part of the experience we’d be participating in the set up of the balloon. He told us we’d be driving to a prep area, where there would be a small crew and a lot of space to set up the hot air balloon.
A little disclosure, Bill Lee knows everyone in town and it’s no surprise since he is the current Chamber Director and Visitors Center Director of Gallup.
Fun Fact: Hot air balloons were invented in France in 1783 & the first flight took place at the French palace, Versailles
Setting Up a Hot Air Balloon
Once we arrived and bundled up with jackets, scarfs, and gloves, we walked over to watch Bill do a wind speed and wind direction test. We actually took a balloon (think birthday balloon), let it go up in the air and watched it for 20 minutes, to see where it went and how quickly. That’s actually how they do it. This was the number one thing they had to do before we could even think about setting up the balloon.
After this, Bill and his crew begin to unload the balloon, basket, and engine from the trailer.
Each of us also got a job helping to bring this gorgeous balloon to life.
The first thing I thought was the basket was so much smaller than I thought it would be. Turns out there are different size baskets and different size balloons.
Part of the hot air balloon experience was actually preparing for the flight. I have to be honest, I thought we’d show up and hop in the balloon and take off. Turns out watching and helping in the process is quite comforting. It also gave us a chance to ask more questions and get to know our pilot.
We got all of the parts out of the trailer and onto a plastic tarp. Everything has to be carefully done to protect the balloon fabric. Bill is meticulous to make sure that the balloon is set up in the safest way.
Fun Fact: What you might think of as the ‘balloon’ portion is called an envelope
We spent some time laying the envelope (the bag or what most think of as the balloon) out carefully. It was incredible to see how long the balloon is before it’s filled with air.
Giant fans were brought out and positioned so they could start filling the envelope with air. We used these giant fans to blow the envelope halfway up and there would be enough air that it could hold itself upright.
Along, with filling the balloon envelope with air, the crew worked handling ropes from different sides of the balloon that kept it on the ground and stable.
I got inside to take a picture of the balloon and it felt like I was in a kaleidoscope. This was very interesting but now it’s time to take off and I had to stop stalling and delaying things.
Almost there, we start with fans and then add the hot air.
Our pilot, Bill led everyone very clearly and told each what to do during set up. Getting a hot air balloon ready for flight is truly a group effort. As the fans blew the air into the balloon and it started to fill and reach for the sky, we could see the giant day of the dead graphic, which is a giant skull face. It looked really cool– with the purple, blue, pink and black. We got the balloon 3/4 of the way full and it started looking like a giant vessel.
After the balloon envelope was full, it was all hands on deck to get the balloon standing straight up by turning the basket from its side to upright. Then Bill got the engine primed and the hot air firing. All of the fasteners and locks holding the ropes and chords were all double checked, all the straps and the engine stabilizers were ready. The tanks that fueled the balloon was double checked and we were ready to go.
Fun Fact: A rooster, a duck, and a sheep were the first hot air balloon passengers.
Now that everything was triple checked, Bill got in the basket. It was then time for Alexa, Roland and me to step into the basket as well. While we were learning about the basket and safety onboard, and how it operates, the crew assisting Bill, made sure we were steady and ready for lift-off. It’s really an extremely detailed process to be sure everything is set up properly and Bill made it look easy.
The Hot Air Balloon Launch
The time had come to launch. We started to float upward and let the ropes fall to the side. The weightless feeling that I felt did not feel scary like I thought it was going to. In fact, I really didn’t feel like we had left the ground. It was very different than I expected, I loved it.
There is a certain comfort to floating in a hot air balloon. There was a feeling of serenity because of the quiet; all we could hear was the balloon engine firing off every minute or two to keep the hot air going. As we went higher and higher, it became clear to me why people do this, the scenic beauty is unsurpassed. You see sunrises and mountain landscape like you’ve never seen them before. I’m sure you also see sunsets that are so beautiful. I can’t imagine what it’s like to do this on a regular basis.
Fun Fact: A hot air balloon is a lighter-than-air
As we went up higher we hit 1500 to 2000 feet and we could see all of the residential areas around Gallup. We started to fly towards the rock formations where we were targeted and planning to land. Even up at this height, oddly enough we could hear dogs barking, car alarms going off and a few people talking really loud in their backyards. It was like sound were an echo at a certain height.
As we gained more height and heard less of the ground noise, there was a different kind of peace and quiet. It was an odd sensation floating with no noise except the hot air filling the balloon.
I just learned that Gallup holds the second largest balloon rally in North America. 2018 was the 38th anniversary of the Red Rock Balloon Rally in Gallup. There are 200 balloons at the rally I can’t imagine how beautiful it looks here when there are that many balloons floating through town. It must be a site like you’ve never seen.
It does take a bit of getting used to being in the basket and the feeling of being so closely confined while floating. My wife and my son and I all have a little smirk on our faces and agreed it was a really wonderful experience so far. Even though it was quite chilly, the hot air above us kept us comfy and the top of our heads were definitely warm.
Our pilot, Bill said let’s have some fun take a picture of all of us. It’s hard to do in this basket the only place to put the cameras in the middle and pointed up, so we did a little group selfie. Pilot Bill has a great sense of humor is always looking at what’s going on but makes you feel confident and reassured that the flight is safe and fun.
I could see my son even stopping for a moment just embrace the beauty of being up here. Forced to just stand together and look at the beauty around us, I got the shot of Roland about 2000 feet up. He handled it like the man he is.
As Bill took a shot of all three of us in the basket, I began to wonder “who’s manning the controls and steering this thing”? I’m just joking! Bill kept an eye on the wind direction, wind speed and was really an amazing pilot.
I caught one photo, which is sort of an aerial style shot that I took straight down when we were about 3000 feet up. It was so beautiful and the terrain and land look so different when you’re up floating by. I really like the wide-angle view of the beauty.
This image summed up the feeling we had floating towards earth.
Caught the shot of pilot Bill, looking off into the distance making sure that we’re headed toward our landing spot. Bill was really funny, smart and I believe he takes the balloon to work every day. No, not really.
We continued on towards the great red rock formations and as we came closer and closer we could see where we were to land. The crew had driven the truck to meet us at this specific location.
I was going to take some photos of the landing but it was a little stressful and I was worried, so I just started the video camera and hit go, so I could see how this whole thing ends up on video. A picture really doesn’t do it justice. We are coming in for a landing, we have to make sure we are coming into the right area just like a plane does. Bill had to make sure we were not coming into fast and not coming down too hard. We also had to make sure that the crew are ready and in place to help control and hold the balloon down when we land.
We started our descent to land after about 35 minutes apparently you have about an hour to an hour and a half of gas in the tanks you have to be careful and make sure you land when you’re supposed to.
Somehow I felt like everything was just going to be fine of course. Bill prepared us and told us to crouch down and bend our knees because the balloon might do a ‘hop’. Turns out we had a beautiful and smooth landing. When we hit the ground, the balloon started dragging along the dirt and I was a little worried we would pick up again and just blow off into the distance. That didn’t happen because Bill has done this thousands of times.
After we landed and stepped out of the basket, we all worked together to get the envelope folded up and put back into the container and into the trailer. The whole process was really interesting even more because we got to be part of the preparation and pack up. I highly recommend this experience. You may even want to do it more than once.
Balloon pilot Bill Lee and today’s official helper.
Each ride comes with a traditional balloonist’s ceremony following the flight that included a toast to our flight. Since we were all first-time hot air fliers, we also received a flight certificate for each of us after the toast.
The toast and celebration include sparkling wine or sparkling cider that is placed on the ground. We were told to pick up the glasses with just our mouth and not use our hands. What an awesome experience!
Helpful information: Most flights last between 1:00 to 1:30 hours, but the entire experience lasts 3 to 3:30 hours.
How to book a flight with X-Treme-Lee Fun Balloon Adventures: www.scenicballoonrides.com or call 505-979-2012