February 27, 2009

CT Lighter Than Air Society (CLAS) - Safety Seminar

I have been chasing hot air balloons pretty much all of my adult life. I started in 1984 (yes, 25 years ago) when I took a room in a duplex apartment with two women, one of whom was dating Robert, my pilot buddy. After getting off to a slow start (I assumed the propane tanks strapped to the back of his truck were related to welding) - we discovered some mutual interests, chief among them the music of a certain New Jersey rocker. And so began my life as a balloon chaser.

I've always been a bit of an outsider, hovering on the outside of social circles - and the balloon world was no different. For a while I was Alison's roommate, showing up with her. Then I was a last minute crew person when the regulars were unavailable. I got married which took me away from the sport, moved to Danbury, moved to Waterbury. When I got separated in the early 90's, I started to get called more often. When I became self employed in 1996, I became a regular crew person (nice to have someone available on weekend mornings)

Now, in all this time, I have never formally been trained. There is a certain amount of common sense involved (i.e. - do not smoke near the propane) and there is a lot of "checklist" style repetition. And finally, do something long enough, you pick up the tricks. So it's not hard to become a proficient and professional crew person. I'm the one who knows the back roads from Point A to Point B (my GPS helps, I confess). I'm the one who likes to be at the landing site before my pilot even tells me where it will be. And when new chasers come on board, I provide helpful hints, such as "Park the chase vehicle downwind of a light pole because its the one place your pilot will not be landing...."

I've come through a long time in ballooning - in the early days (pre-cell phones, even pre-radio) we'd arrange to call the Southington police if we lost the balloon (hard to believe, but it happens). Robert would keep street maps of the area under the driver's seat, and we'd be digging out the map for Middletown or Durham if the flight seemed like it might go that way. We'd chase for milk runs (north-south flights along Rte. 10) or venture "over the (Metacomet) ridge". We'd tease pilots who never ventured out of their zip codes.

Then we got small two-way radios, and now everyone has a cell phone and GPS are rampant. We had a passenger updaing facebook using a blackberry while in the air last summer. So it's a dIfferent world!

The balloon community is a loose confederation of pilots and crew members, who mostly meet on wet fields in the spring, summer, and fall. We set up, we fly, we land, we toast, we hit the diner for breakfast after. In between - chit-chat on the field, banter on the radio, teasing about a particularly amusing landing or chase incident (much todo about backing up trailers). A few times a year, the community gathers en masse - the annual Plainville Balloon Fest, a winter dinner, and finally, a Safety Seminar.

I've been a late-comer to all the "community" stuff - although the last few years I've been on the winter dinner organizing committee. This year, I'm actually going to the safety seminar (if I feel OK). It's up at the New England Air Museum (never been there before, can you imagine?). Don Piccard, the founder of recreational ballooning in the US, is speaking.

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