It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood and just right for an afternoon tether. This one would put mega bucks in the coffers for a children's school.
Three balloons were inflated and doing just fine, taking all the little ones for rides at a buck a whack (adults - $2). Each balloon had an experienced pilot and at least one crew member familiar with tethers along with several volunteers from the school. The balloons were anchored securely by three tether ropes each.
With all that expertise around, you would think nothing could go wrong, right? Wrong!!!! One of the older balloons had the basket loaded with five small children. The four adults assisting let go for weight off at pilots command. The balloon ascended slowly to the top of the 80 foot ropes which pleased the young passengers immensely. The pilot held the balloon at that peak so all the small ones could get a good look around. A few moments later, with a slow and calculated decent, the gondola touched down like a feather with the assistance of the ground crew.
One of the adults took charge of removing all paid passengers while the other three adults kept weight on. Here's where the fun begins. It seems once the basket was empty of passengers - all the crew let go of the gondola except for one - who was conversing with the pilot! Suddenly that crew member found herself an unwilling passenger for a fast and furious flight - on the outside of the basket!
Since this was an older balloon, the sides of the gondola were much taller than the newer streamlined styles. The lady crew member was leaning on the leather rail, arms crossed, with her torso leaning fully on the basket. When everyone else let go - up went the balloon before anyone could react. As we all know, during a tether the pilot keeps the balloon hot so it is more buoyant.
How in "Hades" does this happen and what happened? You've all heard the expression about one's life flashing before their eyes? Well, here's what flashed before mine in the mere two or three minutes of that incident:
1. I felt the basket lift me under my arms like a bolt, looked down immediately to see the precious ground leaving my feet all too fast, and thought I had better not let go now!! Figured I would break something for sure!
2. I tried to climb into the basket right away - but couldn't.
3. The pilot tried to pull me in by my belt loops, but couldn't.
4. I literally yelled at the pilot to fly the balloon and try not to catapult me off when we reach the top of the ropes.
5. I reached in the basket (still on the way up) and grabbed one propane tank with my right hand, and another with my left hand (cris-cross style). The pilot grabbed me around the chest and held on after I yelled "I don't care where you grab me, just get a tight hold on - and NOW!" We sprang to the top of the ropes and bounced a bit. He let the balloon cool and gave the burner a little blast to control the descent.
6. Then I begged that he tell me how close we were getting as we approached the ground for touch down. He gave me a foot by foot report and told me when to bend my knees so I would not hit too hard.
7. As I felt the basket settle and the grass beneath my feet - I let my death grip go and collapsed. My legs felt like jell-o. A whole bunch of people rushed over (I guess they heard me screaming) and put weight on. I staggered across the field and sat down, still shaking. The pilot was so shaken that he asked another to take over for the next few rides. He took a rest to calm his nerves after checking up on me.
What was learned? Was it pilot error? Remember that the crew member who took the fateful ride was also a balloon pilot! Who was at fault? Was anyone at fault? Will you learn something from reading this to prevent a similar accident if you participate in a tether - be you pilot or crew?
I learned a simple lesson! Next time I worked a tether - I was going to pay attention to every - AND I MEAN EVERY little detail of what was going on!! I would never again divert my attentions believing that everyone around me was as responsible as the next one, NO MATTER WHAT! I would put weight on, but be ready in an instant to let go and never, never again lean on the gondola with my entire upper body.
Some P.S's are in order here: I was wearing sturdy leather gloves the entire time - otherwise I may have cut my hands on the edges of the old tanks. I was also dressed appropriately for the event - long pants and heavy boots. Any kind of good boot or tennis shoe works great. Even though I was wearing a leather belt - the pilot could not pull my "dead weight" over the side and into the gondola. By "dead weight" I mean there was no way I could boost myself or get a foot hold to help the pilot pull me in. It took less time for this to happen than it takes you to read this article!!
Funny anecdotes after the tether: First, my husband (who was tethering our balloon across the field) told me he had seen a pair of boots hanging below the basket of the center balloon as he descended from one of his rides. He had wondered just what fool was playing around and riding on the outside of that basket. He was ready to protest those antics just about the time he found out what happened.
Second, I called a close friend and confidante of mine to tell her of my harrowing tale. Wanted a little sympathy. All during my lengthy and detailed account she was snickering and at the end she was laughing out loud! When I finished, I asked her what she thought was so blasted funny. She replied: "The same thing happened to me just a few days ago! Except it was a new Raven basket, just like yours, so I was able to climb in before we hit the top! Scared the H--- out of me! Wish I was there to see you hanging on!"
Would it have made me any wiser to have heard her story first? You betcha - Red Rider!!
I shared this with several friends and even told my story at the balloon club meeting. Even if your "incidents" make you feel silly or dumb - share them - - whether it be in writing or during a "bull session" after flying or at a club meeting. It may just help another avoid a big mistake.
Although this incident happened several years ago, I thought the written story to be just as timely today. My telling it over the years has helped others be aware of unusual possibilities. Hope it helps you!
Jacquelyn R. Paul
On a side note about this article written by my friend Jackie Paul...I was 16 years old when this happened and it scared the hell out of me afterword when I realized I could have killed my good friend. That would have been the beginning, middle, and end of my ballooning carrer.