SHERIDAN — Few late risers in the morning have had a chance to see Ginny Holcomb at work.
The early birds, though, couldn’t miss her green hot air balloon taking to the skies above Sheridan.
Holcomb started the business, Cloud Peak Ballooning, earlier this summer when she decided her passion for ballooning would be best shared with others.
“I want to share ballooning with as many people as I can,” she said.
When going for a ride, the day starts early, with setup beginning at 6 a.m.
The crew has to pull the basket and balloon out of a trailer, set it up and wait for it to inflate.
All people taking a flight have to help with crew activities, which include the general setup and take down of the balloon.
Once the balloon is inflated, crewmembers going for a ride get in the basket and everyone else gets into chase vehicles, which follow the balloon’s flight.
The chase vehicle has a tricky job. Because the balloon is completely dependent on where the winds take it, the crew could be following the balloon anywhere for final pickup.
“I don’t have a steering wheel in the balloon,” Holcomb said.
As crewmembers get ready to follow, the balloon takes off from the ground.
The ascent into the sky isn’t like the jerky ride taking off in a plane can be, rather, it’s a slow drift upward to the clouds with a feeling more akin to riding an elevator.
Holcomb, a mother of two, checks the wind before flight by releasing a small helium balloon into the air. That’s done early in the morning to see what the wind is like and where it’s going.
As the hot air balloon lifts off, she’s aware of what the wind is acting like, but she knows it’s a fickle thing.
The wind can shift at any moment, and it does so at different altitudes.
A passenger can actually feel the wind shift in a hot air balloon, because when flyers enter a new wind area they can feel a breeze passing by. The whole ride, the wind is going by but most of the time it isn’t felt because the passengers are moving at the same speed.
Once in the air, the game changes.
Animals react to the balloon and it’s noises. Dogs howl at the balloon as it passes by, and when flying over a herd of buffalo they run away from it.
“We don’t want to create a problem where they’re running through a fence,” Holcomb said. “I can’t afford a buffalo.”
Crewmembers are also looking out for potential dangers. Power lines and fences, among other tall dangers, are constantly a threat.
Because the balloon is like a leaf on the wind, crewmembers are also constantly on the lookout for places to land.
The pilot can decide what air current to ride, but only within the boundaries of what Mother Nature allows. If she want’s the wind to blow north, the balloon won’t be traveling south.
Following the balloon in a chase vehicle last week, fellow balloon pilot Terry Yentzer recalled his worst landing.
“We ran out of fuel in Teton National Park and we had to carry it through the forest for half a mile,” Yentzer said.
Most landings aren’t that bad, with the biggest trouble usually being a landing on someone’s private property.
“We want to make sure we’re asking for permission,” Holcomb said.
Some fields will also be fenced off, and if the balloon and basket can’t be carried away the pilot will sometimes take off and land somewhere nearby with more access.
When the balloon comes in to land, the crew onboard braces themselves. With bent knees and hands on sturdy parts of the basket the flight comes to an end. The basket doesn’t always land smoothly. Often it will hit the ground and then hop a few feet. At times, the basket will tip onto its side. Crewmembers are not supposed to exit the craft until the pilot says so.
Even though the landing can sometimes be rough, the flight is what makes the whole ordeal worth it to enthusiasts. Holcomb said it’s even more than giving a person an attitude adjustment.
“People in ballooning talk about needing an altitude adjustment,” Holcomb said.
At the end of the flight, the balloon is taken back apart and stored.
After everything is put away, Holcomb has a special ceremony for flyers. But you have to travel with her to experience it.