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*Third Place winner Sports Category in New Mexico Press Women Communications Contest, 2008.
Published by the Ruidoso News Friday, September 14, 2007

Morning sun slipped over the Organ Mountains and pinked the top of Picacho Peak. In the valley, green and brown furrowed fields, asphalt parking lot, neatly spaced rooftops and the curling Río Grande lay in the blue shadow of dawn.

Birds flew below. Neither noise nor breeze ruffled the air.

Without roaring motor, not surrounded by heavy metal, human beings and their craft floated gracefully into the warm morning sky.

* * * * *

Do you dream of drifting Peter Pan-like over trees and rooftops, looking down on earthbound people who stare and point?

Then let’s go ballooning!


“This is Cool Beans!! The two exclamation points are because she’s my second balloon named Cool Beans,” explains Jeanne Gartner, one of the balloon’s owner-pilots, in the parking lot of Mayfield High School in Las Cruces. It’s 6:25 Sunday morning.

Cool Beans!! c. Lanelli 2007

Co-owner and pilot Barney Watson and their five-person crew assemble the blue, green, red, yellow, white and purple balloon enlivened by animated jelly bean figures. Jeanne obtains an aircraft weather report and briefs you and first time passengers Berniece and Judy.

The crew fills the double rip stop nylon envelope with 105,000 cubic feet of ambient air. Barney fires the burners, warming the envelope’s air. The envelope rises to eight stories high.

“Hop in,” he invites. Three passengers scramble into the red, blue and tan wicker basket.

The burner flames with a loud “whoosh.”

Burner View c. Lanelli 2007


Like a soap bubble blown by a child, the 1200-pound balloon floats skyward. “I never felt it leave the ground,” marvels Judy.

The balloon rises quickly in the quiet air and drifts westward. “There’s no swaying,” notices Berniece, relief in her voice.

“That’s because we ride in the wind, not against it,” explains Barney.

“4500 FEET AND RISING. . .”

“Hot air balloons can only be steered by air currents at different levels, maneuvering up and down as air in the envelope changes temperature. Also, calm colder air flows like water.” Barney gestures to the brown ribbon below. “The Río Grande is flowing south, so as we get closer to the river, the air could flow south as well.”

Barney monitors altitude and envelope air temperature and scans the sky for other aircraft. “Beans to Chase. Forty-five hundred feet and rising,” he reports via two-way radio to Jeanne and the crew following Cool Beans!! in their truck.

The GPS (Global Positioning System) indicates a ground speed of 4 miles an hour. But no wind rushes in your face. Conversation is easy. You can even hear dogs barking. Barney explains, “The burner emits a frequency the dogs can hear.”


Barney covers the instruments with his hand. “Are we rising or falling?”

Balloon flight is so gentle, you feel no movement. “We’re standing still,” you reply.

Barney smiles and uncovers the gauges. “We’re rising at 600 feet per minute.”

As the balloon drifts north, Berniece snaps photos of fields, orchards, the desert, Picacho Peak, Robledo Mountains and the Río Grande. Barney gestures beyond a gap in the Organs. “There’s Sierra Blanca Peak.” Over 100 miles away, the 12,000 foot-high mountain appears almost at eye level.

“We’re at 8100 feet,” Barney assures. “We could fly as high as 10,000 feet, but we won’t.”

He checks his fuel gauges. “Let’s start looking for a nice place to land.”

You’re in no hurry to return to earth.


As Cool Beans!! approaches the river, Barney asks mischievously, “Are you wearing good shoes?”

“We left the Blotniks at home,” jokes Judy.

“Let’s go sail-looning!” and Cool Beans!! kisses the surface of the river. Like a tall, colorful sailboat, Cool Beans!! skims the surface, riding both water and air currents.

A fisherman on the shore looks up as we sail past. Her mouth drops.

Barney spots a tall cottonwood on the other side of the river. He fires the burners once. We glide over the tree with room to spare.


As we drift over farms, horses look up. “Horses are flight animals, so we try not to land where we’ll scare them. We also want to avoid crop fields.”

Balloon Shadow c. Lanelli 2007

A large empty field lies just beyond the levee. The chase truck waits nearby. “Let’s land there. Get ready.”

Remembering Jeanne’s briefing, everyone flexes their knees, faces the direction of travel and holds firmly to the basket. Like a hummingbird landing on a twig, Cool Beans!! touches earth. You brace for a jolt. There is none. The impact is less than bumping your toe in soft sand.

Crew members hold the basket steady and Barney gives the OK to disembark.

In minutes, the balloon has been “milked” of its two tons of air and lies limp on the ground cover, ready to be folded once again into its stuff sack.

How can a balloon over seventy feet long compress to the size of a washing machine tub?


“The Montgolfier brothers began hot air ballooning in 1783 in France,” explains Jeanne at the post-flight tailgate breakfast under the shade of a giant cottonwood tree in La Llorona Park.

Balloonists revere their traditions, such as the champagne breakfast and initiation ceremony for first timers. Embellishing an otherwise prosaic history lesson with humor, Jeanne recounts the adventures and mishaps of the Montgolfier brothers, farm animals, the first human balloonists and the bubbly wine that calmed pitchfork-brandishing peasants.

“And this is why we drink champagne after ballooning!”

You sip champagne, nibble a chilled shrimp and stare into the blue New Mexican sky laced with cirrus and cirrocumulus clouds that look like mare’s tails and flocks of sheep.

Less than an hour ago, you were part of that scenery.

“Hey, gang, can we do this again next Sunday?”


Join Cool Beans!! and other balloonists at the annual White Sands Balloon Invitational this weekend, September 14-16, 2007. Check out http://www.alamogordo.com/activites/balloon.html or call 800-826-0294 or 437-6120.

Only commercial balloon pilots can take paying passengers. Call Barney at (575)-373-0586 for information or reservations.

See you in the sky!


Watch where you step! Everyone wants to get the perfect picture or find out how balloons work, but avoid interfering with the crew and pilot. Take care not to step on or touch the balloon envelope, ropes, tanks, hoses, inflator fan or basket.

c. The Ruidoso News Friday, September 14, 2007

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