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June 24, 2000 - First Solo Flight

Cut loose!

[Click on thumbnails to see full size pictures]
Big Green is back at Spring Street for the fourth time in a row. Our forecast is 3kt from the northwest and light and variable at 3,000. Carlos, crewing this morning for us with Lisa, asks whether we have many pictures of set-up from previous flights and, hearing that we don't, proceeds to take a series.

In the first picture, I'm connecting the fuel hoses to the burner after assembling the burner and uprights, to do a burner test before laying the basket on its side.

I connect the envelope to the basket, and get the fan ready...
...while Santo and Carlos spread the envelope.
For the next while everyone is busy (no free hands to take pictures) until the balloon is inflated and standing upright. In the background, you can see Robert Zirpolo's Firefly 8 that's also just been inflated, and is flying alongside us yet again this morning. Right around now, Santo comes over to the basket, and hooks the GPS onto its hook. However, instead of getting in beside me, he gives me this grin and says "Jim, you don't really need me in that basket today - I want you to go on your own." Although I was expecting a solo sometime later in this flight, doing the entire flight solo couldn't have been further from my mind.
Mike Russell, one of Robert's crew, decides we need a picture of the four of us, and runs over to take one! From left to right Jim (that's me!), Lisa, Carlos and Santo. I'm smiling which probably means I'm too stupid to be nervous about taking off on my own! Seriously, though, if I had major doubts I wouldn't have agreed.
The plan now is to keep the balloon hot, which is what I'm doing in this picture, and watch Robert climb out from the launch field. He takes off more-or-less to the south, and we watch him pick up a slight left turn at about 200 feet above the ground.
The intrepid soon-to-be solo aeronaut pictured just before...
...and just after take-off. I remember thinking, after waving and turning back to the controls, "Oh boy - I'm up here all alone in a hot air balloon. I'd better fly it."
My initial slow drift away from the launch site gives a nice opportunity for a view from almost directly below the balloon.
Both balloons over Southington. I begin by tracking toward the southeast, toward the mountain ridge, before descending a little to catch the wind flow off the ridge; this gives me a track much closer to south, and avoids crossing the ridge. Since Robert stays lower early on in the flight, he is to the west of me much of the flight, although our tracks cross later on.
After thirty minutes, I begin looking for a landing spot, as we've agreed, although we know I have enough fuel for a much longer flight. As it turns out, none of the early options works out for various reasons, and the flight will turn out to be over an hour long. This is not unusual in ballooning, and is the reason why balloon pilots are planning specific landing options very early in every flight. General options for landing are worked out even before launch; the availability of landing sites in the direction the wind is blowing determines where we launch from.

Here I've told the crew I'm looking at a smallish field just ahead (I'm tracking from left to right in the picture). Santo comes on the radio saying "Hey, Jim, take a look to your right". "What am I looking for?" I reply. The response: "My ugly mug!" and they take this picture from their vantage point parked at the roadside as I wave.

Still north of I-691 tracking south, I'm over a fairly extensive forested area. I descend to a bit above treetop altitude and find, much to my surprise, that I'm screaming along (well, it looks fast to me - Robert said it was maybe only 8kt or so). My initial plan had been that I'd fly low over the trees and drop into the first good spot I found, most likely on the south side of the highway. Seeing this speed I start to re-think my options, knowing that I'm going to need something a bit bigger. I climb a bit to clear the highway and take a look. The wind dies down again to about 2kt or so, and I go back down low, taking the opportunity to practise dragging the bottom of the basket through the treetops in case slowing down that way becomes necessary if the wind once again picks up.

I come across a house in a clearing in the woods below and off to my left, and there's a woman looking out an upper floor window at the balloon. I wave and call "Good morning! Hope I didn't wake you!" (It's about 7:15am by now and I've been in the air one hour). "Not at all - the balloon looks beautiful!" "Thanks!" And I continue on.

I'm tracking toward a neighborhood dead ahead and I tell the crew I'm planning to land there. They've been extremely aggressive in leading rather than following me, and they're already in the neighborhood. Santo is already out of the car in this shot as I approach over the trees a block away.

I'm looking at landing at an intersection about 100 yards beyond the tree line over which I'm approaching. However, there's a nice cul de sac turning circle right where I come over the trees, and Santo has run to the end of the street to receive a drop line there instead. Here I've just thrown the line and Santo is reaching for it. The residents of the house are surprisedly and excitedly coming out on the lawn "Look - there's a balloon about to land in front of our house!"
The entire crew (except for Carlos, the designated photographer for the landing), including the homeowner, has the line and they're guiding me into the center of the turning circle.
All I have to do now is pay attention and keep the balloon light, so I do some short burns as they guide me down.
On the ground again, I'm disarming the fuel system while Santo points toward the direction where we will deflate the balloon. We request (and receive) permission from the homeowner to have part of the fabric deflate onto his lawn.
The liquid fuel system is turned off. Prior to deflation I purge the fuel in the hoses by burning it off from one side, turning off the vapor pilot light, and venting the fuel from the other side to cool the coils.
Time for deflation. Santo has the crown line, ready to pull the balloon over horizontally onto the ground. I give him the signal, and then pull the red line hand over hand to release the parachute at the top of the balloon and allow the hot air to begin spilling out. I do this with one leg already out of the basket so I can immediately turn the basket on its side as the balloon becomes horizontal.
As soon as the basket has been laid over, we begin squeezing the air from the balloon starting at the basket end while Santo continues to hold down the crown end. This can be quite physical, and often leaves yours truly "glistening." Here Lisa and I are wrestling the air out of the fabric toward the crown.
After packing the balloon back into its bag, disassembling the burner assembly and putting everything back in the trailer, it's back to the launch site at Spring St. where we meet up with Robert and his passengers for a champagne celebration.

My crew (from left to right Carlos, Lisa and Santo) raise their glasses as Santo delivers the toast "May all of your breezes be gentle, and all of your landings soft."

As I think more about it, I realize that Santo is the one to be congratulated for today's event. It must take nerves of steel to send your student off solo for the first time: at least I had the balloon to fly to keep my mind off being nervous! Thanks, Santo.

This is a day I'll remember for some time to come...

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