MY FIRST CLOUDHOPPER FLIGHT
By Kyle Miller, Roseville, California

Editor's Note: Kyle Miller began flying hot-air balloons as a student pilot at age 14. Under the instruction of Gary Rominger, he received his private pilot's license this year, at age 16.


Ever since I first saw a cloudhopper at WHAMOBASS, I’ve wondered what it would be like to soar the skies with one. Visualizations of dangling thousands of feet above the Earth in a lawn chair have pervaded my mind for over a year. Now, thanks to my instructor, Gary Rominger, I’ve been able to stop wondering, and actually experience first-hand the magic of flying one.


It all started July 4th of last year. While at Gary’s for dinner, he surprised me with the great news of his most recent purchase; he had bought himself a cloudhopper. Multiple feelings of excitement and curiosity instantly swept over me. He must have been able to see it, because he offered to put it up in his front yard. It was love at first sight. I was astounded by the small size of the envelope; I could pick it up all by myself! After a quick set-up, we started the inflator fan, and watched as the beautiful creature seemingly came to life. The design of the balloon resembled that of a patchwork quilt, and was quite pleasing to the eye. We didn’t hot inflate it due to multiple obstructions on the street side, but seeing the balloon filled with cold air instilled an overwhelming urge in me to take it to the sky. Fortunately, I would get my chance sooner than later.

 

The next weekend, I got a call from Gary asking if I would be able to crew for him if he flew the hopper out of the Yolo County Fairgrounds. I of course jumped at the opportunity to see the balloon in its natural element. Gary wasn’t quite comfortable enough with the flying machine to leave the bonds of mother Earth without a tether, so we attached about 100 feet of line to the chair. Gary lifted off the ground without incident, and looked as if he was having great fun. After he completed a few “touch n’ go’s”, he gave me an opportunity to pilot the aircraft. I sat down in the chair, and strapped the balloon onto my back; it was really comfortable. The controls were extremely responsive; I burned once, and immediately lifted off the ground. I enjoyed the sensation of having my legs dangle over the side of the chair.

 

I quickly adapted my burner technique from longer burns I use on my porous Viva-77 to much shorter, more controllable ones. Unlike a large balloon with a 9-to-12 second time lag from control inputs, hoppers respond almost instantaneously. Landing was fairly simple, due to the fact that I was able to absorb much of the impact with my knees. After a few “touch n’ go’s” of my own, I made a full stop landing due to increasing wind speed. While on tether, you experience a very large amount of false lift, which makes controlling the hopper difficult. I was somewhat disappointed after having to take down due to bad weather conditions; I didn’t know when I would have another chance to fly it.

 

It wasn’t until four months later that I got a chance to free fly the hopper. During Thanksgiving Break from school, weather conditions were practically perfect. Gary and I found a large farm field near my house to set up in. Like usual, inflating took almost no time at all. I strapped the balloon on, got my briefing from Gary, checked my instruments and radios, then left terra firma far below.

 

Two medium length burns took me up to 1700 feet at a 600 fpm ascent. I was really surprised at the rate of climb the balloon achieved after I put such little heat into it. During my ascent, I experimented with the turning vents, and was surprised at how well they worked. I checked the envelope temperature, to find that I was able to fly level at 95 degrees. I found floating 1,700 feet above the ground with my legs dangling below to be a very humbling feeling; it was like a dream. After leisurely floating around at 1,700 feet for a while, I decided to try contouring. With a small tug on the red line, I put the hopper into a 500 fpm descent. I’m not sure what the terminal descent rate is on that specific balloon, but I didn’t feel like finding out either. So I put in a few quick burns on my way down to maintain a comfortable rate of descent. I rounded out a few feet above the ground, and slowly began to let the balloon fall farther, until the tips of my toes were dragging along the brush.

 

I tried a few landings, just to see what it’s like to stop the hopper. I found it to be really easy, I used my feet against the brush as airbrakes, then slowly settled onto the ground. The impact from touching down is minimal; you can easily absorb most of the force by flexing your knees upon contact with the ground. Lifting off in a cloudhopper is great, if you time your burns right, you can jump up and start an ascent, so as never to fall back to the ground. If you’re really good, you can take big leaps over whatever it may be that you are contouring. During my forty-minute flight in the balloon, I only used 10% of the fuel in the 20-gallon tank. Packing up a hopper is one of the easiest things you may ever do as a balloon crewmember. The heaviest piece of equipment is the propane tank, and a 31,000 cubic foot envelope weighs about sixty pounds, which can easily carried by one person.

 

Flying a cloudhopper is one of the most enjoyable experiences of my short life. There is something magical about soaring hundreds of feet above the ground in an air chair suspended by nothing more than a bag full of hot air. I am already eagerly anticipating my next flight with the hopper, or as we fondly refer to it, Rosebud.

 

Photos: Sandy Stoffel