Hot Air Ballooning

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

For most people, the word balloonist conjures up someone who twists air-filled bladders into toy animals. But Ken Eskeback doesn't do that. His balloon can't be filled with one or two stout exhalations of the lungs. In fact, it takes 77,500 cubic feet of air to inflate it. And then the fun begins...

On my way into town one morning I noticed a white truck parked on the side of the highway with the words Balloon Rides painted on the door panel. I pulled over and found Belinda Jackson holding a walkie-talkie and looking into the sky. I followed her eyes and saw a colorful hot air balloon hovering over Pete's Camp.

"Do you want a ride?" she asked.

Balloon ValvesI nodded mutely and she spoke into the walkie-talkie. The pilot's voice crackled back. A few minutes later, the money talk out of the way, I got into my car and followed Belinda to a clearing at Campo Ocotillos where the pilot agreed to meet us.

Ballooning is a profoundly quiet event, until you want to ascend. Once I had climbed safely into the basket and introductions were made, Ken Eskeback, the pilot, decided to show me what an emergency climb was like.

"Pretend we're about to hit some power lines," he said with a grin. His hands went up to two levers on the twin burners overhead. Then a sound like a T-Rex with a megaphone shook the sky. Dogs began barking in the camp. After a brief pause the basket lurched off the ground and we were airborne, rising rapidly.

The ejido north of san felipe"There's at least a six second delay from when you blast the burners until the balloon responds," he explained. "The same when you spill air." He pulled on a rope and the balloon buckled on one side. About six seconds later we began a slow descent.

With a long howl from the burners, Ken sent us into the air again. The altimeter read about a thousand feet when we leveled out. A barely discernible breeze was carrying us over the highway toward the ejido. Below, Belinda followed the backroads in the "chase truck" and kept ahead of us, maintaining radio contact.

The balloon threw its shadow over the ejido. A few Mexican children, excited by the strange spectacle, lept on their bicycles and followed the shadow. Ken decided to set down near a hill of red dirt so we could board a few of the kids. With a young brother and sister aboard, wide-eyed and Cheshire-grinned, we roared back into the sky then quietly floated above the youngsters' home. They were ecstatic.

Ken managed to set the basket back down near the bicycles and the chase car pulled up. Several ejido members gathered at the landing site and Ken enlisted their help to deflate and fold the giant fabric of the balloon. A few others hefted the basket onto the back of the chase truck.

.Repacking Balloon after Landing

Ken's balloon is considered 'smallish' for its family. At 77,500 cubic feet, with a basket that can hold three plus the pilot (if you're friendly), the Eske II, as he calls it, seems more than adequate for the job.

Like airplanes, ballooning is a technical field. Obtaining a Balloon Rating requires a significant amount of training. Someone who wants their Commerical Pilot's Certification in the lighter-than-air category must have:

  • 20 hours in a balloon
  • 10 flights in a balloon
  • 2 flights in balloons as the pilot in command
  • 10 hours of flight training that includes at least 10 training flights with an authorized instructor in balloons

In addition, knowledge of aeronautical charts and the magnetic compass for free balloon navigation as well as recognition of weather conditions are needed tools for the private as well as commerical balloon pilot.

Ken has 520 hours logged in balloons. At one time he ran a skydiving center in Toledo, Washington.

While gliding over the desert, Ken took the time to show me some of the technical aspects of ballooning and explain a few things. His balloon carries three 10 gal. propane bottles, which can last between one and a half to two hours of flight time. The basket of the Eske II was equipped with an altimeter, a bariometer, which mesured the rate of ascent, an envelope temperature gauge and an ambient temperature gauge. The balloon itself, fabricated in 1991, was made of rip-stop nylon.

Ken's flight plans always depend upon weather conditions, naturally. He often releases a helium-filled piball (short for 'pilot's balloon') whose actions inform him about flying conditions and whether the location is suitable for liftoff.

Once a site is chosen, the balloon envelope is laid out on the ground and the crew begins inflating it, using a powerful fan at the base of the envelope. When there is enough air in the balloon, the burners are lit and fired into the envelope mouth. This heats the air, building pressure until the balloon inflates all the way and starts to lift off the ground. There's always a crowd of curious people on hand during the process and Ken often uses them to help keep the balloon on the ground until he is ready to lift off.

Campo Ocotillo from Hot Air BalloonReaching the right altitude is a tricky matter for a balloon pilot because there is anywhere from a 6-30 second delay between blasting the burners and the balloon's reaction. I watched Ken operate the controls just a little bit before he wanted to rise, and shut them off a little bit before he wanted to stop rising. He told me inexperienced pilots often overshot, rising too high before leveling off. Properly controlled flight only comes after many hours of piloting a balloon.

If you are interested in learning more about lighter-than-air devices, click HERE to visit the 'How Stuff Works' site, where there is a nice introduction to ballooning.