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First-time balloon ride made easier with a pro

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I’m not an early riser, and I have a fear of heights.

So what the heck am I doing with Rainbow Ryders at 6 a.m., about to take my first balloon ride?

I didn’t have an answer. I guess I can get over my irrational fear for an hour.

I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep the evening before – some nervous excitement about the morning ahead.

The words “BUCKET LIST” are written on each of the Rainbow Ryders balloons, with a red check mark next to them. I hoped by the end of the morning I would be able to check my own bucket list instead of kicking the bucket.

On this particular morning, about 50 people were waiting to ride.

At Mariposa Park, the launch site, our pilot, Troy Bradley, assessed the weather by sending a small helium balloon aloft – it veered to the north – to begin the launch process.

Rainbow Ryders balloons fly over Paseo del Norte on Albuquerque’s West Side on Wednesday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Bradley earned his private pilot certificate at age 16 and commercial pilot certificate at 18. He’s piloted more than 7,255 balloon hours, the equivalent of about 302 days aloft, and has set 64 world records in hot air, gas and hybrid balloons.

In 1992, Bradley made the first U.S.-to-Africa balloon flight. He made a flight from Japan to Mexico in 2015 and set distance and duration records for helium-filled balloons – 160.6 hours aloft and 6,656 miles.

Knowing this boosted my confidence somewhat.

Crew members laid out the basket and balloon envelope to start the inflation. Bradley connected and checked all the components. A high-powered fan forced air into the balloon envelope.

Rainbow Ryders balloons inflate at Mariposa Park.

With the envelope now full of air, Bradley lit the propane-fueled burner and brought the balloon upright by blowing hot air from the burner into the envelope. The burner is surprisingly loud.

The inflation took about 30 minutes.

Now came the hardest part – at least for me: climbing into the gondola in preparation for takeoff.

Bradley explained how he controls the balloon. But the wind determines where it goes, and distance traveled depends on wind speed. On this day, it was about 10 mph.

“Our only control is vertical,” Bradley said. “Going up and down is under my control. The reason why we go up and down is to find different winds at different elevations. That’s how we are going to steer the balloon. That varies day to day as to where we are going, but we’re going to go somewhere downwind.”

Then Bradley gave instructions on landing. This is good to know:

“When we come in to land – and we don’t know where that’s going to be …”

We don’t know where that’s going to be?

“… I need you to put down purses, backpacks, cameras and anything in your hand. Everyone is going to face away from the direction of travel. Keep your knees bent, and hang on. When we bounce, it’s going to be at that angle, and we’re going to be laughing and having a good time.”

Finally came the ascent, and it was smooth.

We rose above the cottonwoods to see the streets and buildings grow smaller. We saw the sun rise over the Sandias as we flew north toward Rio Rancho. It’s calm. The weather is perfect.

For the benefit of our fellow passengers visiting from Oregon and Maryland, Bradley pointed out Duke City sights.

Although I was holding on for dear life to padding in the middle of the gondola, I appreciated the view. It was amazing.

Five other balloons were flying with us. More than 500 balloons in mass ascension and thousands of people will participate during the world-famous, nine-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, I’m told.

As the city grows, Bradley said, it becomes harder to find good landing spots. “If you have enough speed, though, you’re going to get to open space,” he said. “That’s not a problem. The problem is some pilots will try to force it into a small spot.”

We waved at people below. People waved back. Dogs barked.

Flying near Petroglyph National Monument, we descended to about 200 feet off the ground, close enough to see jackrabbits and other animals scramble for safety.

We would eventually reach about 2,500 feet above ground and travel about 10 miles. With the exception of the burner, it’s striking how quiet it is.

After close to an hour, with open space ahead, it came time for the landing.

“We may actually drag and tip on our side,” Bradley said. “That’s why you’re in that landing position and that’s what keeps you guys from bouncing off one another.”

We landed. We ran into a bush or two. We ended up tipped on our side. But our world record-holding pilot was right – we laughed.

I was lying on my back in the gondola, but it felt good to be back on the ground.

“We thought it was wonderful,” said Marty Freeman of Millington, Md., who came with two friends to Albuquerque and was happy to point out how nervous I appeared. “We loved it. It was better than what I envisioned.”

We then honored a ballooning tradition, with Bradley reciting the balloonist’s prayer during a champagne toast: “The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warm hands. We have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in laughter and set you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”

Amen to that.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Steve at 823-3964 or