#22: Riding in a hot air balloon

Posted by Megan on October 13th, 2011

Call me practical, but I’m not what you’d call an early-adopter. I’d much rather wait for trusted, technologically advanced options to roll around. I’d never agree to be the first human to travel to Mars (what if the atmosphere scrambles human brains!) nor would I ever agree to be the first patient to receive a brain transplant (what if I get a serial killer brain!)

Would you ride in the Wright Brothers’ plane? Unless you’re a crazy daredevil or borderline suicidal, I’m guessing your answer is probably no. Yet hundreds of thousands of people dare to ride in humans’ first flight technology every year. Hot air balloons are one of those weird niches I’ve never quite understood. They are functionally obsolete. They travel about five miles per hour in whatever direction the wind chooses. Yet despite the glaring lack of useful purpose, everyone still seems to “oooh” and “ahh” every time a basket suspended from a floating blob of fabric floats by.

Hot air balloons were invented 125 years BEFORE the spirit of St. Louis. And yet I still willingly hopped into the floating death trap.


No one seems to get that excited when they see a typewriter. They seem to have suffered the same fate; replaced by a newer more useable technology – however the nostalgic factor doesn’t seem to stick. I guess it all goes back to the little kid inside us all “Look a big shinny colored thing floating in the sky!”

Despite my skepticism of the allure of such an impractical flying device, I’ve still always wanted to ride in one. This probably goes back to my love of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. She seemed totally stocked to ride home in a hot air balloon, so it must be a pretty fun adventure. 

If Dorthoy can do it, so can I!

My dad has also always wanted to ride in one, so when I found a Groupon for hot air balloons in nearbyStillwater,Minnesota, I jumped on the opportunity.

We made our first appointment in early August, but it was called off due to weather. As it turns out, balloons only fly in optimum weather and flights are canceled about 80 percent of the time. Thankfully we have good luck and we were able to fly on our second try. Coincidently, the flight took place on Brad’s and my first anniversary.

Since the best weather conditions for flying are early in the morning, we needed to arrive at the launch site at 6:30 a.m. My parents met me and Brad at our house. I was giddy as we drove towards our adventure.


It was still dark when we arrived at Stillwater Baloon. We watched the staff inflate the balloon on the ground using huge, loud fans. Brad commented how irritated the neighbors must feel to be awakened every weekend summer morning to the roaring fans, thus adding another notch to our growing “must not have” list for our next house. (must not be next to a hot air balloon launching site!)

After the fans blew open the balloon, they started the fire. At this point I became instantly scared. My wussy brain started reeling.

The balloon filled with air as my fear also inflated.


Wait we’re going to float aimlessly through the atmosphere in a wicker basket being lifted by fire. This is preposterous and dangerous! What if our chubby pilot suffered a heart attack? What if the balloon was hit by a flock of birds? What if everyone in this balloon gave their drivers licenses weight and not their real weight when making their appointmen?t!  It’s almost winter here and the birds are getting the hell out of here in droves. Oh dear God, I’m going to die by hot air balloon. What an incredibly frivolous way to die!

Everyone else was engrossed in the beautiful multi-colored balloon slowly raising towards the sky. Why was no one else saying their final prayers. I contemplated calling my sister to give her my verbal will, but it was too late. We were climbing into the death trap.

The balloon held 16 people plus the pilot. It had four compartments, so my group had our own little balloon zone. I held my breath as the balloon employees on the ground let go of the basked and we floated upward.

It only took about three minutes for me to relax. The basket came to my arm pits, so that eased my tension about falling out. I was standing right next to the pilot. He seemed comfortable and at ease. I watched for any symptoms of cardiac arrest, but he seemed stable for the moment.

We were assigned to our balloon compartment. I shared mine with my parents and my husband Brad. I was happy that we were separated from strangers just incase I peed my pants from fear.


The leaves were just beginning to turn orange and yellow. The St. Croix riverwas beautiful and seemingly still in the early morning hours. We floated by some bison; scaring them into a mini stampede as we drifted over their grazing field. We peered into several multi-million dollar homes. I imagined what it would be like to be a bird and to see the earth from this angle everyday. Then I imagined myself being a flying super hero. Then I imagined myself being Princess Jasmine on a flying carpet. Just as I was about to bust out my own personalized version of “A Whole New World,” it was time to take our 30 second lesson on how to prepare for our landing. This was the lesson in it’s entirety: Hold onto the rope loops, bend your knees, don’t freak out.


Good morning sun!


Check out the cool pattern the bison created from grazing in this field.




An interesting fact about hot air balloons: they almost never land in the same place twice. At least not in Minnesota, where the wind patterns are unpredictable. Our flight pilot had turned into a balloon squatter, landing in any public area he could, then quickly packing up and getting out of there before anyone got mad at him. Our first landing target was a cul-de-sac. Apparently cul-de-sacs are great places to land, since no one can be upset that you landed on their land and you’re typically not holding up traffic. Unfortunately the wind changed at the last minute, blowing us past our easy landing. Plan B was a church parking lot. It seems like a nice empty plot of land…. Unless you’re landing at 8:55 a.m. on Sunday morning. When I looked at the spot where our pilot was attempting to situate the balloon, I panicked. It was about ten parking spots, completely surrounded by fancy cars.

This was our parking spot. The church minister is on his way over to say hello.


“HOLD ON TIGHT!” our pilot yelled as we nearly lopped off the top of several cars. We screeched to a halt about ten feet from a very expensive looking classic car. Needless to say, we got lots of inquisitive looks from the churchgoers. I suppose it’s probably fairly surreal to drive into your church parking lot and be greeted by a huge hot air balloon. Two vans and a few other cars raced to the scene and began feverishly deconstructing the balloon. It was clear they were directed to move as fast as they could. Seeing a hot air balloon is probably kind of fun, but

Soon after we landed, the church minister came out to us to say hello. He gave us a blessing and a smile. It was nice.

As soon as we hit the ground, a team of 12 started tearing down the balloon and deflating it.


Exiting a balloon is far more chaotic and physically demanding then exiting most any transportation device. Except of maybe 40 by 30 #8.



As the staff tore down the balloon, we were treated to a Champaigntoast. Brad and I made a toast to our first year of marriage and gave each other a big smooch. It was an incredibly fun and unique way to celebrate our first anniversary and it was an honor to have my parents to celebrate with. They have been married more than 30 years and are still madly happy and in love. They are a role model of marriage, so I felt blessed to spend our special day with such an inspiring couple.

Fun, family and Champaign. You can’t go wrong.

Tommie gets to mark this one off his bucket list. Check out that smile!


I honestly don't think I've ever had a drink so early in the morning. Well I guess in college maybe I had one whilst still drinking from the night before, but that doesn't count... right?


It’s certainly a day I’ll never forget. I didn’t die or end up on a farm inKansas. Instead, I had a peaceful memorable morning celebrating with family.

  • © 2011 Megan Steil