The Colorado Springs Balloon Club launched some hot air balloons from a large field south of Main Street in Westcliffe, Colorado, on August 14, 2011. We showed up at 7 am and parked in the field with a couple dozen other cars and walked across the field to watch the crews inflate the balloons. Westcliffe’s elevation is about 8000 feet but it is climatically a high desert, so among the tall field grasses were very little, but very sharp, cacti–they looked like miniature prickly pear or beaver tail, and stuck in the soles of tennis shoes. In other words, we had to stare at the ground to negotiate the short distance to the balloons.
The balloons are great expanses of color and imaginative designs and that, along with the fact that someone is actually brave enough to sail off in the wicker basket gondola, made the early morning excursion worthwhile.
There were four balloons and a couple of paramotor gliders (I think they are in the class of ultralight aviation, but had it not been for the giant fan-like motor strapped somehow behind the pilot, I would have recognized them as hang gliders like the ones at Torrey Pines in San Diego).
The balloons are inflated by a large propane burner at the mouth of the balloon. That propane fire roars constantly until the balloon is upright. Then the pilot can adjust the hot air inside the balloon by turning the propane on and off as needed. That’s how they go up or down. The ultralights just start the motor which makes wind and pushes them aloft and along. Both the swoosh of the propane burners and the noise of the ultralight fans kept the dogs barking, if not entertained.
The Chinese used lanterns heated with candles to rise off the ground as military signals way back around the first century. I think they also experimented with dogs as passengers in hot air contraptions. Fortunately, the passengers on Sunday were consenting humans and those of us on the ground enjoyed the brilliant colors of the balloons and powered gliders as they sailed up and away towards the far fields.