Flying the colors of the national flag of Mexico in the high mountain desert: November 19, 2010
The clank of helium bottles banging together means something to me. I hear it before a flight-- as we set up the gas on the airfield. Usually it is the night before we fly. I won't sleep much that night; I'll be back on the airfield again in just a few hours, well before first light. It's funny, the sound means nothing to most people-- just the sound of metal banging against metal. But, that particular sound brings emotion for me and my crew: some mix of anticipation, some concern-- will the winds be right? do we have absolutely everything correct?-- and that particular feeling that comes from knowing that we will be on the airfield again soon, in the dead of night, inflating gas cells to carry us into the skies.
We had these sounds-- bottles banging against one another-- and these feelings as we setup the airfield in Leon, Mexico during the night of November 18th, 2010. The 17.2 mph winds we observed on our handheld wind meter gave me things to worry about that I could have done without.
These are dream flights. We never said they would come easy.
The Colors of a Nation:
This system will be something special. We have been invited here, into the heart of Mexico, to build a manned balloon system in the colors and semblance of the National Flag of Mexico. We will take this system, this bandera, and launch into the heavens in front of thousands of people-- flying the national flag, in the heart of Mexico.
The colors of the balloon system will be:
- Green - Esperanza: Hope
- White - Unidad: Unity
- Red - Sangre de Héroes: The Blood of Heroes
The blood of heroes? Woah, that's a little heavy. Ok, it is the national flag, born in revolution, in armed insurrection against European colonial powers. So, yes, on the bandera, there is red, the blood of heroes. But, I am rather hoping there won't be much of that today.
By Sunrise: Sunshine greets the Great Eagle, on the airfield
In the night, a precious few crew come together. Our festival is outstanding, but some issues prevented our 10 promised crew from reaching the inflation spot at our designated time. We started our day at 2:30am, scrubbed weather data-- which was full of omens rather dissimilar from all the reports we have heard of calm flying in Leon.
Yet we are there, on the airfield at 4:00am-- with friends we've met at the festival, friends we've known from other gas balloon dreams, and professionals from the industrial gas provider. They will harvest the helium bottles, once we drain that precious gas to form our flag to fly. But, that will be hours in the future. These gas guys got here in the pre-dawn black because-- well, because this is a pretty damn cool thing to do with helium. Industrial gas providers don't typically get to see their product used to raise spirits, raise their national flag, and lift a pilot into the skies. Thank goodness for our crew; we appreciate you so much.
By first light, the balloons are inflated. At least, I remember balloons were inflated, and I know it eventually grew light. I don't remember when the dawn arrived; I don't remember the sky becoming light. I was preparing the system, watching the wind, rigging the gondola. Dedicated crew turned bags of latex into a proud aircraft-- even more proud as it was in colors celebrating the bicentennial of Mexico, 200 years of independence. Named in that honor, this is the cluster balloon system "La Independencia."
Pageantry and Ceremony:
The wall of media fanned out in front of our cluster as we prepared to launch. The princess of the city was lovely, the mayor gracious, the dignitaries dignified. Together we had caused this system to come into existence. Their dreams, our dreams, made this fantasy aircraft a reality. Together we celebrated for brief moments on the airfield-- full pageantry-- as we prepared to launch N878UP.
So many happy faces; so many smiles. Every eye looks up at their towering national flag. There is such pride.
I ask the crowd: "Are you READY?!"
The Countdown comes from the crowd:
The crowd had maintained a respectful distance; a polite, invisible wall separated the aircraft from its countrymen.
The countdown commences in the loud collective voice of the crowd. The polite wall separating La Independencia from its compatriots has collapsed.
One of the beautiful components of our form of flight is the immediacy-- the immediacy to the dreams we all had as children, and the physical immediacy of the crowd to the aircraft at launch. There is no propeller, no burning jets of flame, no roar of motors-- nothing that would force spectators away.
This airfield is not silent. I had asked the people of Leon: "ESTAN LISTOS?!" -- Are you ready?!-- The crowd has responded a resounding "Si!!!" And, they are close-- all around their bandera, under their balloons, under their flag--- and it is time! We count down together-- the PA announcer is calling out the last digits of the countdown!
Together, we hit zero -- the event organizers release their hands! The aircraft is free! The balloon launches, with the Great Seal of Mexico-- the Great Eagle-- front and center as we go into the sky! I yell at the top of my voice-- "VIVA INDEPENDENCIA! VIVA MEXICO!!!" I've never heard such sound on an airfield as the cheers that greeted the launch of La Independencia into the Skies of Mexico.
INTO THE AIR! INTO THE SKIES OF MEXICO!
I launch with a sharp rate of climb. This is a celebration! There is passion! Today we don't want a soft drifting launch. Today we want to soar! And we do-- into the heavens, into the skies, up above the festival, and out-- waving to thousands--- as we depart.
I've heard Joe say it. "Away from the things of Man." Our balloon system departs, guided into the skies of Mexico by her great seal-- the great eagle balloon that carries us aloft. First to the hills, and then to the mountains beyond-- the eagle soars.
Mountains Rise, and we Rise Even Higher: Floating Above the Hills
Flying Well Above the Desert Mountains
Soaring Above the Mountain Floor:
Living Above the Highest Plateaus
Did you hear me? Above I wrote that we departed the things of man. Do you see structures in the photos above? I challenge you. Scroll back up. Find houses. Find dwellings. Find people.
Aside from that tiny pilot suspended in open space, there are none of those things.
We float into the open sky, so high above the mountain desert of Mexico. Into the sky, to destinations unknown. The scale is vast; we soar to 18,000 feet. We will fly all day, with sunset 11 hours distant. The range is registered in dozens of miles-- in hundreds of miles. The view is beyond my feeble mastery of language. The scale inspires awe.
This is gas ballooning.
Blue Skies of Mexico
Living in the Sky
What do you need to live in the sky?
Everything you need to live. Potentially you must bring your own oxygen; on this flight we were well into the ranges of rarified air; supplemental oxygen is critical.
What else? Protection from the elements. We soar high; the sun is so bright, so strong. Protect our eyes, skin-- from the heart of the sun, the cold of the vast sky. So clear; clean; thin; crisp; unforgiving.
You and I are normally protected by the cocoon of our atmosphere. I get above half of that cocoon; a pilot must protect oneself.
Living in the Sky
I'm reusing that same title: 'Living in the Sky.' It's my website; I can do what I want. Because, that day, I did live in the sky. This was not a brief, ephemeral moment. Hour after hour, open skies-- vast spaces that crack complex thoughts of lift, buoyancy, track, ballast, and replace them with a awe of our heavens.
All day. Hour on hour. Nothing separating me from the sky. I live here. Hour after hour. Drinking in the heavens through my eyes. Blessings from that gorgeous sun-- warmth on the skin at altitude. The Mexican skies; so blue; clouds so white; me, so small.
There, you can see it: my landing gear. The mechanics of this system are uncommon. I climb into the heavens. Scissors-- EMT shears, to be more exact-- return me to our planet's surface.
All this sweeping language of the skies and heavens, and it is these shears that return me to the earth.
Stunning the capabilities of this gas; amazing what can be done.
Romance & Dreams
Didn't you dream of this? Didn't we all dream of this? When you were young, I think, you looked to the heavens and wanted to touch.
Not in a jet; maybe you just wanted to be there. Do you know that it is possible? Do you know that you can come here, in the clouds, the heavens, so far above our world? It is possible. Do you know that you could come here? It is not too late.
Is it heaven without clouds?
We will say that for the safety of all, we don't want little balloons inside the clouds, where other aircraft can't see them.
It is, however, outstanding to be close. Flying through the sky....the sky...with clouds you can feel in your heart, if not on your skin.
Outside of the clouds, yet they are in us.
N878UP: La Independencia
The skies played gracious host to our balloon aircraft that day. Have you looked closely at the Great Seal of Mexico? The Eagle-- serpent in it's mouth-- perches on a cactus. I won't talk too much about our landing that day. Suffice to say that, true to it's heritage, this eagle carried us into the skies, and as the seal foretold, landed us with great cactus. Symbolism intact, we returned to touch the surface of the earth again, returning to the high desert floor.
End. November, 2010.
For the cluster balloon system "La Independencia", With Great Appreciation:
My heartfelt thanks go to:
- Our outstanding crew for their excellence on the airfield; I would never have had this opportunity without you; it is this team-- YOU-- that enabled this flight of the national flag of Mexico;
- Our sponsors and friends at the Festival de Globos; what a gorgeous event you have created for Leon and your country;
- Pilot and friend Jim Roybal for the critical assistance during that early time on the airfield, to get us ready to fly, and then for sharing the skies with us as you piloted your own aircraft over Leon;
- Dave Palmer, for the graphics that helped us paint the skies;
- Phil Bryant, for the vision and dedication it takes to get a gas balloon event started; outstanding work Phil-- thank you for the invitation to come fly;
- Special thank you to Enrique Tiscareño, for assistance before flight, for help during inflation in the dark of the night, and for a full day-long chase that crossed the deserts of Mexico;
- Endless thank you to Nidia Ruiz Ramirez.