An Oz Experience: Flying With The Oldest Balloon Company In The USA
There’s really no place like home. And if you’re lucky enough to call the Black Hills home; well then, you’re lucky enough. Just ask @jessebrownnelson.
I recently married my soul mate. The kind of guy you can be your complete self with, share your deepest darkest secrets and always know he’ll be the warm smile waiting for you at the end of the day. My mom likes to refer to him as “the human version of a hug”. Anyways, that’s beside the point. My new hubby and I received the most wonderful experiential wedding gift involving a 450 pound fully-fueled balloon and basket, endless sky and an admirable landscape complete with a champagne picnic; a truly spectacular combination. The entire experience made me reflect on The Wizard of Oz, but I bet you that even The Wizard himself never flew over a land so downright stunning.
We waited to book our Black Hills Balloons adventure until the fall, right before flights ended for the winter. A sunrise flight at that time of year was a little chilly, but nothing long sleeves, a sweater and two coats couldn’t handle. Oh, and that massive flame warming my body every few minutes. Basic science class will teach you that air gets colder the higher up you go, and I’m here to tell you that when traveling upwards, a hot air balloon is a must.
Follow the yellow brick road.
Or a dirt road to a launching site surrounded by Ponderosa Pine and limestone not far from Custer State Park and Crazy Horse Memorial. It was only about fifteen miles off the main road, but the anticipation made the drive feel extremely long. Long enough to make me record a delirious video documenting that fact I was awake and half functioning at the crack of dawn. I would show you, but I think I lost it (wink, wink). This is why sunrises are so special to me, I rarely see them.
As soon as we were out of the van and the balloon inflation process had started, my seven-year-old self had a strong desire to run into what looked like a giant beach ball. Actually, my 24-year-old self (who am I kidding). Remember the parachute game in elementary school? That's exactly what this was, except with a giant fan at the end and flame in the middle. A little too dangerous for elementary school. I’ve read that a good ground crew can inflate and launch a balloon in fifteen minutes. The Black Hills Balloons crew launched two in that time, tossing four of us in one basket with the pilot.
Cows, horses and a little dog too.
Agriculture is the backbone of our region, but there are more wildlife species you can see in flight than just horses and cows. In fact, you may see turkeys, mountain lions, deer, elk, antelope and even buffalo. The horses we saw that day were seriously intrigued by a mysterious giant floating balloon, while the cows were more caught up in the balloon van following us during the flight.
We flew a sky-scraping 1,500 feet high or about 300 feet higher than the Empire State Building. High enough to make everything look like tiny plastic toys, but low enough to hear Toto in his backyard constantly barking. Apparently, he always does that. Black Hills Balloons' most impressive elevation was near 8,000 feet. You can do the math. This particular flight lasted around an hour, but seemed to pass more quickly like any bucket-list experience does. I remember hearing nothing but my camera shutter clicking, the flame keeping us afloat every few minutes and the other balloonists in our basket joking that we wouldn't be landing for 80 days (with enough snacks I would have totally been okay with this).
Three heel taps won't help you land, but an experienced pilot will.
Even if The Wizard of Oz was a whiz of a wiz, he probably didn't land as gracefully as we did that day. And all while barely making it over a pond (cue the dramatic entrance music). Tipping over on the landing could have been thrilling, but we didn't. And soon the giant beach ball came down just as quickly as it went up. Now, remember when I told you about there being a champagne picnic? This is when it happens. Muffins, mimosas, hot air balloon history and a flight certificate to show the world, and Auntie Em, that it wasn't just a dream.
Go to BlackHillsBalloons.com for season flight information. Sunrise flights are perfect opportunities to explore the rest of the Black Hills in the same day. Go here to learn about other Black Hills bucket-list adventures or follow Visit Rapid City on Instagram for daily vacation inspiration!