ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - In the world of hot air ballooning, Kris Braden landed the nickname the Astronaut, because he likes to fly high.
I’m more of a feet-on-the-ground sort of person, so when I found out Braden would be piloting the hot air balloon in which I was riding, my palms immediately started to sweat. Something about dangling 6,000 feet above golf courses, houses, barking dogs and a river supported by, well, a gust of air does that to me.
I’ve been trying for 10 years to overcome a fear of heights, and I knew that a hot air balloon flight would test the prewired systems in my body that insist thick walls and safety nets should always stand between me and a sheer drop-off.
During a recent trip to the Hyatt Regency Tamaya, though, I signed up anyway. After all, Albuquerque is home to the world’s largest hot air balloon festival, a nine-day event each October that features more than 500 hot air balloons.
Braden first learned to fly when he was a kid, and his father, also a balloon pilot, let him take over the burner now and then. He officially earned his private license when he was 16. Two years later he got a commercial license, and today he has more than 3,300 hours of flight time.
Ask him about memorable moments and he’ll likely tell you about the time he landed the Red Baron frozen pizza balloon in a nudist colony. He’s also flown balloons for TV shows, movies and commercials.
I let Braden know before we took off early one July morning that heights made me uncomfortable. He promised a smooth flight.
“We go with the wind, and we don’t have turbulence,” he told me.
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As the sun began to rise, we all pitched in to unfold and hold the balloon as Braden aimed huge fans at it, steering cool air into its folds. When he lit the burners, the fabric billowed up.
With the balloon almost full, we climbed into what looked like a giant Easter basket. Before I could bail out, the craft had lifted lightly off the ground, and with each blast of the burner, we rose higher.
I resisted, barely, the urge to drop to the bottom of the basket and curl up into the fetal position. Instead, I grabbed my camera and pointed it toward the horizon. Then I chatted with fellow passenger Alex Temblador, who said she also felt a little nervous.
Things I liked about the flight? Seeing the river glint like a ribbon of mercury far below. Watching the rising sun light up the mountains. Looking out at the three other balloons hovering in the distance.
Things I didn’t like? Looking straight down. Seeing another hot air balloon well beneath us. The loud, hot blast of the burner.
“We’re 6,000 feet above the ground,” Braden announced about 30 minutes into our hourlong excursion.
Temblador and I shivered at the realization that we were floating more than a mile above terra firma. The city looked like a checkerboard far beneath us. Sandia Peak glowed like a watermelon.
Ballooning is a year-round passion in this desert city. Nearly every morning, at least a handful of brightly colored balloons rise from the horizon.
Forty-five minutes in, we began our gradual descent. Braden zeroed in on a postage stamp-size patch of green; he told us to flex our knees and hold on to the railings as he brought the balloon down.
We touched, skipped along the ground for 30 or 40 feet, bounced once or twice, came to a stop and bowed over like a debutante.
One by one we climbed out of our Easter basket. We sipped Champagne. Braden read us an Irish poem, and we celebrated the flight.
“It’s a surreal experience,” Temblador told me afterward. “It really makes you realize how ingenious humans are — they can go beyond the imagination.”
IF YOU GO
I arranged my flight with Rainbow Ryders, rainbowryders.com, through the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa, hyattregencytamaya.com. For more information about the nine-day Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, scheduled this year for Oct. 5-13, go to balloonfiesta.com.
Here are some tips for staying calm in a hot air balloon if you’ve got a fear of heights:
• Enlist a friend to go with you.
• Let the pilot know heights make you uncomfortable.
• Look out at the horizon, not straight down.
• Take a camera and focus on getting a good shot.
• Stay hydrated.
• Consider taking music and listening to it with earbuds during the flight.