Over the next few posts, I’m going to share some of the research that went into the writing of my recently resissued novel, Breaking the Silence. I’ll write about the secret CIA Mind Control experiments in which my character, Sarah Tolley, was a participant, and I’ll talk about my personal experience with selective mutism, which is five-year-old Emma’s affliction.
Right now, though, I’m going to start on a lighter note as I describe my harrowing experience with hot air balloons. In Breaking the Silence, Dylan Geer makes his living as a hot air balloon pilot. Since he’s a point-of-view character, I wanted to understand what his world was like. During the time I was researching Breaking the Silence, my brother-in-law worked for a hot air balloon company, so I was able to quickly schedule a flight. The weather, though, didn’t care about my connections, and six flights were cancelled because of high winds or rain. A seventh had to be cancelled when we hit a traffic jam on the beltway around Washington DC on our way to the launch site. I was living in Northern Virginia at the time, and as those of you familiar with that area know, traffic can come to a standstill that lasts hours. And this one did. Darkness was falling by the time we gave up and headed back home.
Finally, it looked as though the eighth flight would be a go and we arrived at the launch site with time to spare. There were to be two flights that evening, and ours would be the second. My then-husband and I climbed into the chase vehicle while the first set of passengers–four senior citizens–were helped into the basket. I was excited to have the time in the chase vehicle, and I whipped out my pad and pen to take notes as we drove all over rural Maryland trying to keep the balloon in sight. The winds were misbehaving a bit. They would misbehave a bit more before the evening was over.
Part of the role of the chase crew is to find a landing site for the balloon. This was a challenge, since the balloon seemed to be flying farther and faster than anyone had anticipated. Finally, we found a field. The only building was a beautful, big farmhouse and the crew asked the owners for permission to land the balloon on their land. Then we all stood around and watched the distant dot in the sky as it grew bigger and bigger, heading smoothly for the field near the house.
Suddenly, a gust of wind grabbed hold of the balloon, lifting it abruptly into the air again and out of reach of the crew. Everyone on the ground and in the balloon started yelling and shouting (and maybe even screaming and ducking; that would be me) as the balloon headed directly for the chase vehicle. The basket bashed into the side of the van, and then the wind pulled both balloon and basket rapidly down the gravel driveway. The chase crew, my ex, and the adult family members from the farmhouse ran after the basket, trying to stop its sideways slide. The balloon itself smashed into the farmhouse, finally bringing the basket’s wild ride to a halt. Thankfully, injuries to the passengers were minor–a bloody gash on a leg and some very jangled nerves–but the balloon was not so lucky–it suffered tears that would require repair before it could fly again. I can’t say I was unhappy about that! No way was I going up that day.
But I was determined to have my flight. A few weeks later, I climbed into that same basket on a balmy evening and we rose into the air. I had one minor moment of “Ack! This is high!” before settling into the amazing sensation of sailing far above the ground. We were up there no more than ten minutes, though, when it started to sprinkle. The sprinkle turned to real, serious rain, and our pilot began searching for a place to land. In communication with the chase crew, he learned of a quarry not far from where we were flying.
When you think of landing a balloon, you think of a nice flat field, don’t you? Maybe there’d be a goat or a bull in the field, but that would be the worst of it. But a quarry? We had to land and land fast, and the quarry was our only choice. I was able to see firsthand the skill of our pilot as he maneuvered our balloon between two rock walls, dodged the jagged remnant of a dead tree trunk by–I swear–one inch, and brought the basket down with a thud on the narrow road that ran through the quarry. I will end my tale here, and only mention in passing that the gates leading out of the quarry were locked, with the balloon and basket and us on one side and the chase vehicle and crew on the other.
Dylan Geer, my commitment phobic character, has one close call with his balloon, though not quite as dramatic as what I actually witnessed. It was fun getting to write about something as light-hearted as hot air balloons in an otherwise serious story.
I hope I get to fly in a hot air balloon again, but I’m going to wait until I’m someplace where there are wide open spaces and no wind and no chance of rain. Does a place like that exist?