Feb 16, 2021

Cloud Hopper


Chris Ritland

You have to be okay with not having total control.

To be a great balloonist, you really have to go with the flow completely. I don’t get the same feel of magic from flying other things, but it’s true that other things are more practical. The joy comes the second my hand touches the burner. There is something to the magic of the balloon that doesn’t exist with gliders or planes. There really isn’t a purpose for ballooning other than pure enjoyment. Whereas every other form of aviation, there are a lot of purposes. They’re more reliable and you can live a more structured life, but with ballooning, it’s so different than anything.

It’s kind of relaxing being up there. It’s not like an amusement park ride, because there’s no motion. There’s usually even no wind because you’re moving the same speed of the wind. It’s a bizarre sensation —  serene. You’re up there, it’s smooth, you don’t even feel like you’re moving, and most people don’t have an issue with heights. Even compared to lighter planes, there’s no other form of aviation that you can have the same feeling of getting pretty low, relatively slow. It lets you take in everything, and that’s when you can see animals. You can actually talk to people on the ground. You can see things in detail, and that’s one of the cool things about flying in the winter —  everything leaves tracks. It’s Monarch butterfly season here in Vermont, and the other day we were flying over a field of wildflowers surrounded by these butterflies.

I’ve been drawn to the sky ever since I was a kid. I always wanted to be a pilot. Growing up where I did in Vermont, there was always a balloon in the air. With ballooning, you can store it in your garage, you can launch from your yard — there are a lot of things that make it accessible. I was fortunate enough to meet a man named Andre Bouche, and without him, I would not be a balloonist. I worked drywall for him and traded that for lessons. Now I pay one of my chase guys in lessons. I get to create this experience and share it with a couple hundred people every year.

A lot of people can get good at reading the wind, but I don’t think anyone can really say they’ve mastered it.

It would be great to be up there and be like “That field over there looks nice. Let’s go land there.” In reality, you’re going to end up where the wind takes you. It’s kind of like sailing, except with sailing you have the ability to use rudders and things to fight against the wind. With the balloon, you don’t even have that, but you can learn how to read the wind and predict it. I always try to think of it as sailing on a 3D grid.

You start by looking at all the weather reports that are available. Before we fly, we release a little helium balloon and that gives you the real-time data that you need. You can’t steer a balloon — there is no way to just turn right or left. You have a few controls that you can manipulate and one of them is your altitude. If you go up high, you’re going to change direction. If you go down low, you’re going to change direction. You use that knowledge to fly like a curve into a field. The test balloon will provide you with that information as well as the different aviation forecasts, which aren’t always accurate. But this area is good for balloon weather reliability. We’re pretty far away from the ocean and we also have a lot of rolling green hills, which provides these wind breaks that naturally calms winds down.  

The wind levels down low are very heavily affected by the land features. The more you fly in a specific area, the more you figure out the trends that occur. Even so, those trends vary drastically day to day depending on the wind direction and things like temperature. The more you do it, the more you feel comfortable and you have an idea of what the flight is going to do. I started ten years ago, and I have a pretty good idea of what my flights are going to be like. With that being said, quite often you take off and you’re wondering why you’re going in a completely different direction than you thought. That’s just part of it.

I went to a festival recently called the One Man Balloon Meet that was just to celebrate this guy’s birthday — Joe Leahy.

He’s this Irishman, who for the last twenty years, picks a different town in Ireland and invites a bunch of his friends, and they invade the town with their balloons for about three days. Most of them are one or two person balloons. We took off from this location that was overlooking an amazing castle and the scenery blew me away. It’s just as green as Vermont, but there are a lot more shades and a lot less trees, so you can land in a lot of places. Livestock is prevalent, and they become the trees that you have to avoid. I went as part of a team. We had four people with one very small four door car, with two baskets hanging out the trunk and two balloons on the roof. It was pretty funny driving that.

You can do more adventurous things with a lightweight balloon. I have this vision of trying to put together snowmobiling and hot air ballooning in Colorado. That way I can reach areas typically only accessible by a snow craft. You can still fly lighter balloons in the winter and be able to get your equipment back if you land. As soon as you get more snow, unless you have the lightweight stuff, ballooning becomes  a nightmare. If you have a balloon that only weighs 70 pounds, you can throw that on your shoulder and walk out even if you land in the woods. The basket is lightweight, and at that point you’re not going to have any propane left in the tank, so everything becomes manageable.

The experimental one I’m working on is going to be built to travel. It’s small and lightweight, because I want it to be able to carry myself and one other person. I think it’s important to at least be able to share it with somebody. The small balloons are more intimate and easier to use. As you start to get more on the commercial side, balloons tend to get bigger and bigger. The work that you do is less flying, and requires a huge team. With the small, lightweight stuff, it behaves differently. It goes up and down, and it reacts a lot quicker, like a jet ski versus a boat. I was able to source a lot of nylon seconds to help the cost down. You have to buy the rolls by 100 yards, so if you want to have multiple colors you end up with a lot of fabric. For an average sewer, it takes about two hundred hours behind the sewing machine, and I think I’m a little slow! It’s the first time I’ve ever sewed, but it’s a way of keeping my love for ballooning alive.

As told to Jason Schwartzman, True Senior Editor

Chris Ritland

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