Imagine yourself riding a bubble in the wind. The quiet peaceful serenity of floating gently in the breeze, brushing the pecan orchards or drifting silently above the Rio Grande River. The silence is interrupted briefly, as Pilot Bill Lee burns, adding heat to the bubble that keeps us aloft. Then, back to the silence, as we climb, up above the treetops, where we overlook El Paso’s upper valley. Even birds fly by beneath us, seemingly unaware of our presence. This is the joy that is Hot Air Ballooning.
Hot air balloons are the oldest successful human carrying flight technology, dating back to the Montgolfier brothers’ invention in France in 1783. The first hot air balloons were basically cloth bags, sometimes lined with paper, with a smoky fire built on a grill attached to the bottom. They had a tendency to catch fire and be destroyed upon landing. On September 19, 1783 a sheep, a duck and a rooster become the first passengers in a hot air balloon launched by Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. For manned flights King Louis XVI had originally decreed that condemned criminals would be the first pilots but a young physicist named Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis Francois d’Arlandes successfully petitioned for the honour. They took off at 2 p.m. on November 21, 1783 from Château de la Muette in Paris watched by King Louis XVI. They traveled about five and a half miles for 20 minutes – the first free flight made by man.
Today, however, countless hot air balloon pilots can provide you with a safe and skilled bird’s eye view you’ll remember for years to come. As you float effortlessly above ground you “see the area from a unique perspective,” says fellow passenger Julie Hammink. “The valley looks like a patchwork quilt from several thousand feet up, and it made me want to look in every direction at once.” As the mighty Rio Grande meanders below, the vastness of the unique El Paso region unfolds and stretches from one direction to the other. The beautiful green textures of the river valley contrast with stark Chihuahuan desert providing the chance to appreciate a unique and peaceful view from above. The breathtaking views of the mountains, north to New Mexico and south to our neighbors in Juarez, Mexico only add to the experience of being aloft.
What a fantastic view there was one early Sunday morning as the sun began to peer over the Franklin Mountains giving the valley a stunning glow. “To be up in the air floating around on such a beautiful day, I couldn’t help but feel peaceful and calm,” says Henry Delgado. “Pilot Bill performed his job like a master craftsman.” While Bill Lee is a professional and licensed hot air balloon pilot don’t expect a definite landing area as there is no steering wheel or brakes in a hot air balloon. Despite this Julie muses “it wasn’t Mr. Toad’s wild flight…it was more of a sensation of walking around slowly on very long legs.” Any concerns truly vanished once we gently lifted off the ground and began drifting along- the flight was sensational and the feeling of achievement has lasting effects. Since the balloon moves with the wind, one feels absolutely no wind, except for brief periods during the flight when the balloon climbs or descends into air currents of different direction or speed. Upon landing Pilot Bill decreased the amount of fuel and with a slight bump we were back to land again in an open Canutillo field.
Floating high in the sky is an adventure all its own, but the hot air ballooning experience begins early in the morning from the moment the balloon and basket come out of the trailer to the inflation of the balloon and continuing through to the traditional and humourous champagne celebration at the end. Much preparation goes into the launch of a hot air balloon and from the direction of Pilot Bill we were part of every step. There is a strong camaraderie among balloonists taking pride in their craft and as Delgado says, “I felt as if there was a genuine invitation into the world of ballooning.” Indeed there was. You can fly throughout the year, early in the morning or late in the afternoon. The flight duration is usually one hour to an hour and a half but you must allow three hours in total for the time which covers inflating the balloon, a champagne ceremony after the flight and returning to your pick-up point.
“The best part of ballooning is the people you meet along the way,” says Pilot Bill, so do expect to walk away from this experience having met new friends who genuinely welcome you to the world of hot air ballooning. If you are seeking adventure for yourself or an unforgettable gift for those who have it all round up the family or a few friends as there is no better ride. As the Irish say, “The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with his warm hands. You have flown so high and so well, that God has joined you in your laughter, and he has set you gently back again in the loving arms of Mother Earth.” Happy Flying!