Things Change, But Not Everything
A few weeks ago I got a call from my old friend Noah, looking for crew for a morning balloon flight. This used to be a common occurrence around here back in the ‘80s, when we had maybe 10 balloons based in Rhode Island, but these days it’s pretty rare. Noah mainly flies his small homebuilt experimental balloon, with just a harness for the pilot, but on this weekend he had out-of-town guests and was inspired to bring out the big Aerostar, with the wicker basket and the trailer and the whole works, so he needed a chase crew.
We met in a schoolyard, dragged out the envelope, checked the winds, started up the fan, got the big balloon standing up, and Noah and his friends climbed in. So far, it was all the same as ever. I waved to the folks as they drifted off and vanished behind the trees, and I was left to chase solo, with the SUV and the trailer. In the old days, we’d have a pile of maps in the chase vehicle, and a contact number to call in case we got lost, with change for a pay phone. It dawned on me, as I drove out to the main road, that we all had phones in our pockets now, and all I had to do was wait for Noah to land and text me a map with his location.
I headed off in the general direction they were drifting, hoping to catch a glimpse of the balloon as they crossed a road. I searched the sky above open fields with wide vistas, drove down tiny one-lane roads through the woods, and pulled over by our local “desert,” a wide-open space with sandy soils where I could watch a huge swath of sky—but no sign of a balloon. For an hour or so I poked along, and while it wasn’t the more challenging chase of the old days, it was a relaxing way to spend a Sunday morning in the countryside. When I got the text from Noah, I wasn’t too far away, and headed to the farmer’s field where he’d put the balloon down.
And here’s where I found that despite the decades passed, and the changes in technology, the balloon experience was timeless after all. Noah and his friends had already gifted the landowners with a bottle of champagne, and were making plans to meet later in the day to buy fresh oysters from their aquaculture site nearby. The passengers were brimming with smiles and enchantment from their first experience aloft. We all piled into the truck and headed off to a local diner, where I got to know Noah’s friends over waffles and coffee, and heard their stories about the magnificent flight.
Decades from now, our next generation may be gathering on a weekend morning to go exploring in their autonomous eVTOLs. The technology will be different, but hopefully the experience will endure—friends sharing an adventure, and finding new friends along the way.