I don't relish setting my alarm for 4:15 a.m. -- especially on a weekend. But today was different.
I had the opportunity to go on a hot-air balloon ride as part of the Great Galena Balloon Race, at The Galena Territory in Northwest Illinois.
My host was Bert Gaessler, of Rockford, Ill., one of the most experienced pilots anywhere. He has been flying balloons since 1978. His resume includes serving on the crew of Kevin Uliassi, a record-holder whose attempt at a solo around-the-world flight ended in Burma (now Myanmar), about halfway toward the goal, due to oxygen supply problems.
Bert's wife, Jane Jaworski-Gaessler, served as his crew chief and drove the "chase" or support vehicle -- no easy assignment on the winding roads of Jo Daviess County. In the gondola with Bert and me was Shawn, a regular member of Bert's crew. Other crew members included Heidi (no time for last names) and Bert and Jane's adopted daughter, 9-year-old Elizabeth.
This was my second flight. My first was more than in Ottumwa, Iowa, 25 years ago, when upon landing in a farm field the gondola tipped on its side. I was prepared for anything.
I arrived at Eagle Ridge Resort's North golf course in the Territory for check-in at 5:15 a.m., and we were aloft somewhere about 6. Our flight was to be 45-60 minutes, but Bert, a retired carpenter, went overtime to find a suitable landing site. I certainly didn't mind!
One of the great things about riding in a balloon is the quiet. In between the WHOOSHES of the propane burner, you hear nothing but the breeze and occasional sounds of life below, be they barking dogs, mooing cows or vehicles along Highway 20.
The expert pilot, Bert set down the Goldie on a gravel road just off U.S. 20 near Woodbine, Ill. No tipping! Jane, in regular communication with us via cellphone, was pulling up as we set down.
I estimate the trip at about 12 miles, as the balloon flies. It was a great experience! Thanks to Bert, Jane and the crew.
Here's a video from my ride. (By the way, the chirping birds you hear came with the music track.)