On top of the world - Hot air balloons provide a heavenly view of the Badlands

MEDORA - Before the sun was even a twinkle in the sky, a brave, little test balloon sailed high into the sky to check the wind conditions. If the small balloon fluttered, spun or was swept away, the crowd gathered outside the Badlands Motel knew ...

MEDORA - Before the sun was even a twinkle in the sky, a brave, little test balloon sailed high into the sky to check the wind conditions.

If the small balloon fluttered, spun or was swept away, the crowd gathered outside the Badlands Motel knew there'd be no flying in the bigger versions filled with hot air. They instead would have to hope for another chance.

The pilots and participants came here from across a tri-state area last Saturday, eager for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of riding in a hot air balloon, but Mother Nature was not cooperating.

The next morning, the group gathered around 4 a.m., an autumn chill keeping everyone huddled together. Thankfully, Mother Nature had a change of heart or at least a change in wind conditions. Still, only seven of the planned 10 flights ultimately became airborne.

For many in attendance, the flight would be brief, but memorable. Soaring over Medora's campgrounds and the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, participants could see the sun peek between the buttes with the deer, elk and rabbits stirring below.


The scene of leaves changing from green to yellow, orange and red dotted the landscape. The Little Missouri River meandered toward a distant horizon barely discernible in the hazy glow of a misty, Badlands morning. The unforgettable sights warmed the hearts of those above the ground to see such natural beauty.

"It's like you are on top of the world," first-time flier Colleen D. Johnson of Minot said. "The landscape was breathtaking. We were the first up and had a very soft landing."

But as Johnson and the others found out before going up, there is no free ride, even when on top of the world. All participants, young and old, were instrumental in getting the balloons ready, into the air, landing safely and packed up with pilots and crews, which was an arduous, but rewarding task.

"The only way to learn ballooning is to jump in with both feet," pilot John Boulger of Fargo told everyone before setting up.

Boulger has flown all over the world in many different terrains and weather conditions.

"Safety is first and we always have to be cautious," he added.

Most of the flights lasted 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the wind, which picked up again before 7 a.m., making all who got to experience a flight feel fortunate.

"The Badlands would have to be the most beautiful flying for me. There is no better place to see," Boulger said.


His first flight in the area was in October 1985.

"The land is pretty and wild, with great contours," he added. "The sun does wonderful things to the hills."

Boulger has a lighter than air, air heat certified license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for commercial flights to take people up, and teach others how to fly.

"This is a passion and a hobby for me," Boulger said. "A friend asked me to help him with his balloon 23 years ago and I was instantly enamored with it. I loved everything about it from the start; being up in the air, the friendships and the fact it's an outdoor activity."

There are no balloons for rent, so when a person owns one, they have to learn how to fly, he added. It takes a minimum of five people to get a hot air balloon safely in the air. So each pilot had either other certified pilots, those learning to become one or friends and acquaintances to help.

"People who crew with me regularly do it because they fully love the experience, even if they don't go in the air," Boulger said. "It is not a solo activity. It's a nice activity with no athletic prowess or great strength involved, you just have to be able to get up early and enjoy a new experience."

The how-to of ballooning is not as simple as the average person would think. It takes careful work by the entire crew and pilot to keep the balloon under control and safely into the air. The landing is what participants hear most about because "you always have to find good landing spots," said Boulger.

First, crew members unload the balloon, ropes, gear and basket to be assembled in a safe area.


The bag in which the balloon is in is stretched and laid out horizontally, said Boulger. A propeller-driven fan blows cold air into the balloon so it gets inflated on the ground lying down. Once it is fully packed with cold air the pilot turns on the burners and shoots heat into the throat of the balloon.

"For my balloon, I have two propane fire burners. Each burner has 15.1 million BTUs which can heat 150 houses," Boulger said. "The heat makes the balloon go from lying down to standing up vertically. Then I step into the basket, the lower part of the balloon, which is made of wicker. During this process of going from horizontal to vertical, the crew and I stabilize the balloon."

A rope on the ground attached to the top of the balloon called the crown line is held by crew members, giving tension to the balloon. They hold on to the rope before releasing it to the pilot when he or she feels it is stable, he added.

The pilot sets up a parachute on top of the balloon. The parachute comes out when the pilot pulls the rope to let out air at the end of the flight in order to land. When the passengers are onboard, the pilot gives the balloon one more blast of heat until an equilibrium is met between the cold air and hot air. This last blast causes the hot air in the balloon to rise. Once that happens, the crew lets go of the basket and you're skyward.

"What makes us go up is warm air which is lighter than cold air," Boulger said. "(In the balloon) I'm lighter than the ambient air and the balloon rises."

For first-time flier Vern Otterson of Fargo, the experience wasn't scary at all.

"I got a kick out of the whole works," Otterson said. "We landed in some sage brush close to a road, but I was never scared once."

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