Hot-Air Balloons, Atlanta Photography, and That Time I Passed My Flight Test

A brightly glowing hot-air balloon at Piedmont Park in Atlanta


A Little Explanation

Last week, I wrote about the hot-air balloon glow in Piedmont Park. This week, I promised some people I'd finish telling the story behind getting my pilot's license - many years ago! 


I started on the ground crew at A Beautiful Morning Hot-Air Ballooning Company in San Diego. 


One gorgeous summer evening, the balloons were up and the passengers aboard. I'd started crewing only a couple of weeks before.


Someone tapped me on the shoulder from behind. 


"Hey, I've got an open spot tonight. You're up!"


Woohoo! My first balloon ride!


My heart was pumping, I was so excited. I climbed aboard.


I could feel the heat on the top of my head as Tiemo, the pilot, burned to get us aloft. Once you're aloft, floating between treetop-level and a few thousand feet, it's so quiet (except for the noise of the burner, which is loud).


My first flight was about an hour. It felt like five minutes as we dropped down to land. 


I was hooked!


So much so, that I spent the next four years working for the balloon company and working on getting my private pilot's license.

Getting a Hot-Air Balloon Pilots License

To be a balloon pilot, you need to take a few tests and get a minimum of 10 hours of flight time. Six flights have to be with an instructor. That's for a private license. A commercial license takes many more hours. 


You go to Ground School and study weather - lots about the weather! Did you know there are eight types of fog? Yep. Gotta know them all to pass your test, along with many other interesting facts. 


Ten hours doesn't sound like much. But try getting 10 hours of flight time in a hot-air balloon. 


It took me almost two years. 


You can get the hours faster if you've got money to burn and can pay for regular lessons. A hot-air balloon has a limited life span, measured in hours - usually between 300-500. Commercial pilots need to charge a lot for lessons to compensate for the lost time flying regular paying passengers.


I didn't have money to burn so I traded crew time, on top of my regular crew and office work schedule, to get flight lessons. 


That usually involved getting up at 4 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday for weekend flights since I crewed all week for pay.


It sometimes meant traveling a couple of hours to the desert, crashing with a bunch of other crew and pilots in a cheap hotel room, and getting up early to crew. 

The First Solo

I had to pass a written test, an oral test (that was a killer - over two hours!), and of course a flight test. 


The winds in San Diego are predictable, coming from the same direction, for the most part, in the early morning and late afternoon. That's why it's such a good place to fly hot-air balloons. 


The first time I flew solo, I got caught in a thermal. It was terrifying. It was morning and the ground was heating up.


My instructor, Doug, was talking to me on the radio. 


"Whatever you do, don't vent!" He yelled over the radio. 


Venting is when you let hot air out the top so the balloon will sink. 


Boy, did I want to vent.


Every fiber of my being told me it was time to get on the ground. But I was still going up, rapidly, riding the thermal. The balloon basket was being pushed in circles by the swirling heat of the thermal.


Meanwhile, my heart threatened to pound out of my chest.


I kept burning to keep the balloon envelope open. 


Suddenly, the thermal spit me and the balloon out the top. The basket stopped spinning in circles. Serious relief.  


I vented immediately.


My first solo landing sucked because I wanted to get on the ground so badly! I ended up on the side of a small hill in the middle of a bunch of tumbleweeds. 


Doug wasn't pleased about that part.


There was only the two of us, and balloons and balloon baskets are heavy, very heavy. We couldn't get the truck close to the balloon. We had to carry it.




But, we managed, and I was so excited. Nothing like a serious shot of adrenalin to get you pumped!


It's easy to see why some people are adrenaline junkies.  


Hot-air balloons at Piedmont Park for the balloon glow 2019

The Test

After many hours of crewing, I finally had enough flight hours to take my flight test. I had already passed the written and oral tests. 


I was super nervous the evening of my flight test. Doug told me repeatedly, "Just get the examiner up, take a short flight, and land. No more than 30 minutes." Ah yes.


The winds, apparently, didn't get the message. 


Those lovely, predictable, San Diego winds didn't cooperate. They were flowing from the direct opposite direction they usually did. Hmmm...


"Don't worry," Doug said. "You've crewed from here a million times. You know where we'd launch and land in this situation."


That was true.


We headed out with the regular group going out ballooning that evening. I was going to be nervous no matter what, so it didn't matter that the wind was coming from an unusual direction. 


I still remember the examiner's name: Lila. 


She was chill. 


Once off the ground, she instructed me to find a place for a touch-and-go. That's a sort-of landing. Touch down and then go right back up. 


I found a spot that looked doable.


Down we went. Graceful touch-and-go? Not so much. But serviceable. 


Once we were aloft again, I started looking for a place to land. But then a funny thing happened. 


I was blasting the burners hard because I wanted to get over the power lines - way over with plenty of room to spare.


These weren't your regular little power lines.


I'm talking about the giant, beastly terminal power lines that run from San Diego all the way up to L.A. and beyond. They look like something out of a science fiction movie. 


They're scary. Especially if you're in a balloon. 


So I took the ballon high. And then we sat.


And sat.


The wind was blowing us neither west nor east, just sort of slowly meandering us along the path of the power lines. 


So I burned again to get us higher in an attempt to find a more favorable wind. 


The sun was beginning to set.


Balloons operate according to the FAA visual flight rules. It was time to get on the ground. I told the examiner I knew I needed to be down, but landing safely was more important than getting on the ground at sunset.


She agreed. 


The wind still wasn't cooperating. So up and down we went looking for something to carry us to a viable landing area. 


I was sweating, and not just from the heat of the burner. 


It was with great relief when we started drifting away from those enormous power lines. Even greater relief when I saw we were headed in the direction of a good landing spot. 


I was able to come in slow and make a decent landing. It was even close to the trucks that were already waiting for us.


Total flight time? An hour and 15 minutes!


Lila got out of the balloon and walked toward the chase truck without saying anything. 


I thought maybe I failed my test.


She turned back around and walked toward me. 


"Congratulations," she said. 


I let out a whoop and gave her a huge hug and then started hugging whoever else was in sight - of which there were quite a few people! Word had gone around that my test was taking much longer than anticipated. Several balloon chase trucks showed up to the landing spot. 


It was an exhilarating experience, to say the least. 


So that's how I got my pilot's license.


I'm rated to fly hot-air balloons with onboard heaters only. Right now, I'm not current. Know anyone with a hot-air balloon who wants to let me make three take-offs and landings?


Or maybe just someone who needs an Atlanta photographer to go up with them and get photos?


Let me know!


Hope you have an amazing week! 


And see you between the raindrops. 




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