Sharing Can Be Fun
But Not Always

Hi!  I'm Captain Ron.  I've been flying hot air balloons since 1975.

Here's a question I would like for you to ponder.  If you could very much afford it, which of the following experiences would you and your significant other, truly enjoy sharing with perfect strangers?

1.  A sauna at The Ritz-Carlton.
2.  A table at The Gramercy Tavern.
3.  A room at The St. Regis.

If your answer is none of the above, you obviously caught the phrase - "sharing with perfect strangers."

For most people, hot air ballooning is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.  Unfortunately, until you experience ballooning,  you may not understand why (quite unlike the choices above) it's the sort of thing that's appreciated more with friends than with strangers.

Of course, one could give argument that sharing a balloon basket with total strangers is not nearly as awkward as sharing a hotel room.  But there is something about the mystique of a balloon flight ("almost like flying in a dream") which, as a rule, makes most people want to enjoy it only with friends; the pilot's presence being the exception for obvious reasons.

In my 34 years in ballooning, I have had the opportunity to speak with quite a few people who had gone for a balloon ride in a crowded basket.  Most often, these were people who had previously tried ballooning and were now gifting their special friends with the experience of a private balloon ride, while coming along for the chase.

During the cocktail and hors d'oeuvres celebration at the end of the flights, these gift givers invariably seem at some point to bring up the fact that they made the mistake of flying with strangers; almost as if to deliberately suggest to their friends that they have been gifted first class accommodations.  When pointedly asked why they would have otherwise gone for a private flight, their most common complaint was the lack of the exclusive attention of the pilot.  In fact, one person cleverly drew the analogy of a crowded classroom versus a private tutor.

Yet others described the subtle inconvenience of being in close quarters with strangers, and the extra effort and vigilance of maintaining politeness and courtesy.

 Here's an example of what they're talking about.

Try to imagine that you and three of your longtime friends go for a balloon ride.  So, there you are, four close friends and the pilot, peacefully drifting above the treetops.  Suddenly, someone spots a fox running through a field toward the woods.

You're lady photographer friend has her camera all ready, but unfortunately from her position in the basket she can't even see the little rascal, much less properly aim her camera.  What happens next?  She boldly wedges herself between her two friends in the front of the basket, nudging one to the left, the other to the right, points her camera - "click," "click" - she gets the shot, all to the pleasure and approval of her fellow passengers.  If need be, she could even have pushed the pilot out of the way.  (Hell, we're here to serve and we're getting paid for it.)

But now here's the obvious point.

You can't always get away with asking strangers to move aside, let alone push them aside.  The bottom line is that the entire mood in a "shared balloon ride" is so completely different than one that involves even casual acquaintances.

Flying in a balloon evokes a sense of immense freedom, adventure and joy which can be amplified among friends, but which unfortunately is instinctively subdued among strangers.  A balloon full of friends is all about frivolity, gaiety and almost childlike chatter.  On the other hand, a shared ride invariably begins with austerity, propriety and the need to become acquainted in the first half hour, so as to possibly release in the second half hour.  It's just not the same!

At times, shared balloon ride stories can be comical.  But then at other times, not so comical.

On about half of all balloon rides, as the pilot makes his final landing by opening the deflation vent, the envelope will blow over in the wind, pulling the basket over on its side.  No problem.  Everyone just gets to gently fall over.  For this reason, an experienced pilot will have the men in the front of the basket with the ladies to the rear on final approach.  But sometimes it doesn't always work out as planned. 

I'll never forget that on one flight, we not only ended up with the ladies on the bottom, but also with both ladies being laid upon by other than their significant other.  One woman had no problem handling it.  However, the other lady gave her rather stocky co-rider a substantial piece of her mind, immediately after climbing out of the basket.  In trying to calm the situation, I actually felt more compassion for the poor embarrassed fellow, profusely begging forgiveness, than for the compressed female plaintiff.  In the end, no one was seriously bruised and my crew chief was smart enough to immediately break open a bottle of champagne with the emergency plastic cups, which quickly brought everyone's sentiments (if not their senses) back to normal.

But now once again, here's the poignant afterthought.  Among friends and acquaintances, such a landing only rouses laughter from everyone, throughout the entire drag, rollover and crawl-out.  If someone gets ruffled a bit, it's no big deal.

Of course, if it's a flight for just you and a loved one, the mood is yet again entirely different.  It's all about luxury, exclusivity, privilege and romance.

Typical of the roominess of a two passenger balloon ride, is in-flight champagne and relaxed seating.  A passionate moment can indeed be had with the pilot dutifully looking away as he checks his instruments and gazes off  into the horizon, contemplating only his strategy for the rest of the flight.

In the past 34 years, I have always remained loyal to the concept of private balloon flights, whether they included two, three or four passengers.  If you would prefer to enjoy such an experience for little more than having to share it with strangers, I would greatly enjoy the honor of making it all happen.

Soft Landings.