Balloons, Fire and Champagne: My Morning at the Tunica Balloon Bash
Ballooning is an early morning sport, and the main race at the annual Tunica Balloon Bash in Tunica, Mississippi last Saturday was no exception. I stumbled into the Tunica National golf course clubhouse at 6 a.m. to be paired with a pilot and listen to the short pre-race meeting.
The race wasn't really a race at all. Instead, pilots had to pass their balloons over three large targets and toss colored beanbags at them. Other than the targets having specfic closing times (after which, no beanbags would be counted), speed wasn't a factor.
I was paired with pilot Frank Anger, a no-nonsense middle-aged man, who, upon meeting me, told me to stay with him, because he would leave me behind if I didn't. Each pilot has a team of people called a chase crew that help load and unload the balloon, check the weather, plot the course and follow the pilot's progress from a car. Frank's three adult / one pre-teen girl crew was called America, and they flew a massive red, white and blue American flag-inspired balloon.
We piled into Frank's SUV and headed for a nearby field where other crews were already out of their cars, floating regular balloons to check the direction of the wind. After standing in the field conferring with the other pilots for a few minutes, Frank told us all to get back in the car, and we set off for the Tunica airport.
It's amazing how quickly a hot air balloon comes together. I was expecting it to take much longer, but as soon as Frank stopped the car, the crew was pulling the basket out of the trailer and unfurling the 250 lb. balloon from its envelope.
Frank and I climbed into the basket, the crew untethered the balloon, and, with a few blasts of hot air, we were gently rising into the sky. The basket, for the record, isn't very big. There was enough room (barely) for me, Frank and three propane tanks.
Once we reached a decent crusing altitude, Frank started steering the balloon by letting hot air in and out to raise and lower it to find the best wind currents. The other balloons were flying much closer to us than I thought they would be, and at a few points, they passed directly over or under us.
Being in a hot air balloon is intensely peaceful. It's moving, but not very quickly (maybe four to six knots per hour), so it feels a little like being suspended in mid-air. It's quiet, save for the sound of the gas firing in the other balloons. It sounds a little bit like breathing.
About 20 minutes after taking flight, we passed over the first target. Frank lowered the balloon and tossed the beanbag, but came up short (he also missed hitting the judges on the ground). We didn't fare any better with the second target – Frank made an attempt to steer to the left that sent us veering off to the right. We didn't do any better with the third target, which was atop a giant blue building. After getting on course, then off, then back on, then off again, Frank decided to land a little early.
Frank prepared me for the worst landing possible, telling me that he would do his best to be gentile, but couldn't promise anything. I told him I was ok with falling over, as long as I didn't go flying out of the basket. Instead, he set us down very gently at the edge of a sad-looking soy field. The chase crew was nearby, so they came and broke down the balloon, loaded up the trailer and we headed to refuel.
It's tradition among Frank's crew to celebrate each successful flight with a champagne toast. We found a nice spot near the golf course club house and set up. Someone had made some doctored saltines in both sweet and savory varieties, and we stood there muching as Frank popped open two bottles of Cook's.
I was just going to watch, but they insisted that I had to participate. Frank told a (probably not very true) story about the origins of hot air ballooning, then recited the ballonists prayer. He proposed a toast, and told everyone to lift their glasses, other than me – as a new passenger, I had to drink mine with no hands. It seemed a little weird, but they had been so nice, and I wasn't in a position to argue, so I bent down, put my mouth on the glass and started to gently tip it forward when one of the crew members snuck up behind me and emptied a bottle of shaken-up champagne on my head like I was a mid-morning, North Mississippi version of Jay-Z in a club.
Thanks again to Frank Anger and the whole America Balloon Crew for being awesome, taking me on a great flight and dousing me with booze.