Like most aspiring writers and recent Journalism grads in a struggling economy, I found a job as a balloon pilot out of college.

Why not, right?  AP Style and nut grafs basically translate to helium management and mooring techniques anyway.

So, like I said, I found a gig as an assistant pilot for a helium gas balloon at a certain historical museum which shall not be named but most likely sits on a large prairie.  Most likely.

Did I know much about balloons?  I did not know much about balloons.  Did I know much about climbing?  I climbed the wall at Flat Rock once.  Did I know much about complex mechanical systems?  I struggle to get the chains back on bike gears.

But, against all aeronautical odds, I was a balloon pilot.  I was basically the Antwone Fisher of the sky.  Still here.  Still standing.  Except I probably wouldn’t be portrayed by Derek Luke.  Taye Diggs, maybe.  But definitely not Derek Luke.

It was an interesting job, to say the least.  Every morning, the pilots got to work at 9 a.m., worked to unmoor the balloon from its captive position, began loading passengers an hour later and flew until 4:30 p.m or so — allowing for a half-hour lunch of course — when we moored the balloon and prepared it for the next day of flying.

The actual flying part was fairly routine…at least until it got windy, but that’s another story.  The job saw me do some fairly notable extracurriculars, including climbing in and outside of the balloon, sitting on the top aimlessly for an hour and using climbing gear to chop down trees down a ravine leading down to the White River until I threw up my breakfast and conceded the fact that I’ll never grow up to be the lumberjack my parents had always hoped I would.

Maybe the most significant thing I remember, though, was how the longer I worked there, the more I thought about the balloon.  And the more my nightmares suggested that things, potentially, could go very wrong if Jerry Bruckheimer were directing my life.  Given the lack of plot development so far, I’m not sure this isn’t the case.

Nightmares usually ranged from storms rolling into our site and spawning a series of tornadoes that destroyed everything to giant windstorms that blew down houses but didn’t deter my duty to get to the chopper balloon.  Seriously.  The basic mentality you take out of the first month is that, even if the world is coming to an end, even if the sky is ebbing an apocalyptic shade of red and the Lions are Super Bowl champions, you need to take care of the balloon first.

So you have a lot of nightmares about those things happening.  Drew Stanton throwing the game-winning touchdown.  Shudder.

You also, on the job, begin inventing things that could go wrong.  Because really, at the end of the day, it’s a machine.  An attraction.  A mechanical operation.  And while the manufacturer has a perfect safety record, I’m a creative kid.  My mind likes to craft what-ifs.

The biggest what-if I came up with was uncoupling.

Or as Jesse James calls it, Saturday.


My focus, though, was always on those four red rings you see in the picture above.  Those constitute the four steel rings or couplings that help attach the cable’s terminal to the wire ropes of the balloon’s load ring.  Put simply, they keep the balloon attached to the cable, along the terminal/swivel below them.

So you can imagine, if there is an area primarily concerned with keeping you, you know, attached to the ground, I would be keeping an eye on it.

Yeah, it can free fly, but I wouldn’t want it to.  I’m a big fan of the up-down on-off operation.  Anything remotely threatening that process was basically my worst nightmare.

Now, I never had a problem with these rings when I first started working there.  But like any semi-complex operation, the longer you work, the more margin for error you realize, however improbable it may be.  Also, to the credit of my burgeoning paranoia, I saw the freaking thing disassembled once during a maintenance inspection, so I knew — at the behest of tools at least — it was possible to disassemble.  Convincing my mind some freak, Final Destination-esque occurrence couldn’t do the same was futile.

So when the job got completely routine: get in, lock door, prep flight log, check instrument panel, give speech, get going, keep talking with passengers…when I had the routine down pat?  My eyes always drifted to those red rings.  I may have been saying something to passengers, pointing out landmarks, instructing them about the physics of the operation, but my mind was saying all the while it’s going to be this flight, it’s going to be this flight, it’s going to be this flight.

It never was, OBVIOUSLY (okay, am I Fisher or Dodson now?)  But I always thought about how I’d probably make national news if it happened, and either I’d be some huge hero like Captain Sully for landing a runaway balloon or the captain of the inflatable Titanic.

In summary, the thought of uncoupling made me want to curl up in a fetal position mid-flight, when I realized I was over 200 feet in the air and climbing.  Of course nothing shook me like catching a 30 mph wind gust at elevation, though.  Imagine that gondola violently shifting and threatening to make contact with the cable.  Yeah.  Scary stuff, to say the least.

But hey, I’m still here.  I’m still standing.


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