Balloon flying with a Brass Trio

Dateline: August 11,1982

Time: approx. 4:00 PM

Place: 510 Vine Street, Chattanooga, TN

Principals: Tarp Head (Pilot), Jocelyn Sanders (horn), Arthur Jennings (trombone), Daniel Bowles (trumpet)

Onlookers:  A few hundred music fans, hot-air balloon crew, and curious passers-by


    Chattanooga’s Riverbend Festival began without huge crowds, alligator-meat vendors, and beer gardens.  There were no backstage security perimeters or 70-foot yachts delivering headline performers to the barge-stage.  The opening act featured three brass players, a front porch, and a balloon ascension.

    I took the second trumpet position with the Chattanooga Symphony in 1975, for $1,200 for the season (“24 weeks falling within a 28-week period”), and talked two friends into joining me there to form a brass trio of trumpet, horn, and trombone.  Our finances had improved some, and the Trio was an active part of the Chattanooga music scene in 1982, when we were chosen to open a new experiment in town called Riverbend Festival.

    The venue was a small independent bookstore on Vine Street, with an ample side yard that permitted a hot-air balloon takeoff.  After a concert of mostly lighter selections for a crowd of a few dozen, Jocelyn, Art and I got ready to fly.  The Trio had leather helmets and goggles, and I had written an arrangement of “Up, Up and Away” for us to play as we took off. 

    Hot-air balloons don’t just take off.  After assembling the vehicle, the bag is first flaked out horizontally with a large fan creating space for the hot air.  A propane-fired burner provides lift.  It’s loud, a nice whoosh each time the pilot triggers it. 

    The bag gradually moved to the vertical, a process that seemed slow.  The crowd grew as Jocelyn, Art, and I got antsy.  My mind was in adventure mode, noting each detail, and staying ready to play.  As the vehicle reached neutral buoyancy, the pilot checked the wind a couple of more times, hoping for a vertical ascent due to nearby power lines (Uh, this was downtown.)  At go, the pilot did a long burn, the crew released the basket when they felt themselves being lifted off the ground, and the balloon shot upward a hundred feet or so.  In the midst of this chaos, I counted off (“1, 2, 3, 4”) and we played our chart (“would you like to fly, in my beautiful balloon....”).  We had a couple of other pieces (“Music, Music, Music”, “My Merry Oldsmobile”) which we played after finishing “Up, Up and Away”. 

    The departure speed was a surprise.  I had conceived of us floating slowly away from Vine Street, playing for a few minutes while people on the ground enjoyed the music.  It was more like, “whoosh, we’re out of here.”  In a minute or so, the crowd at the bookstore was out of sight, and we were floating along in a southeast direction on a very warm August afternoon.  Our ground-bound compadres later told us we sounded quite nice from the balloon, and that we could have played longer than we did.  Who knows, at the time?

    Balloon flying is quiet while the burner is idling.  Because the balloon goes with the air, there is no wind in the basket.  On that typically hot August day, we were plenty warm while we floated along, accompanied by barking.  Apparently Fido doesn’t see many balloons, so every dog below announced our passage overhead.    Other ground sounds included people talking and traffic noises.  Once up, the balloon rises and falls depending on its buoyancy, which the pilot regulates with the burner.  Air traffic control knew about us - Tarp had a hand-held radio and talked to Chattanooga Approach as we passed a couple of miles south of the airport.
    I had my trusty Nikon with me, and the slides show us viewing the Chattanooga National Cemetery, Missionary Ridge, East Ridge, and Ft. Oglethorpe before we landed.  Ah, landing.  How do you do that? 

    Because the balloon moves with the air, the basket’s ground speed at touchdown is whatever the wind is doing at that moment.  Tarp picked a field full of wildflowers that looked flat, descended into it, and fired one more long burn to make our vertical speed close to zero as we touched.  We had prepared and braced, and we managed a graceful (hah) fall as the basket tipped over on its side, pulled by the balloon.  At landing, Tarp also pulled the ripcord, opening the top of the bag and allowing it to deflate quickly.  This prevented us from being dragged across the field by the balloon. 

    No horns were dinged, dignity was mostly maintained, and we waited in the field while the balloon ground crew came to us so we could ride back to meet spouse and friends.  The debrief was held at the Pickle Barrel Restaurant, naturally on the roof deck, looking at the sky, while we recounted our adventure to Keith, Nancy, and Sandy.  That night, I had a recurring dream of falling out of the balloon basket.  But only that night.  I’d ride on hot air again if the opportunity came.  Two years later, I began flight training in a Cessna 152, and a year after that I became a CFI.

    And that has led to a lot more stories, with even a few having to do with Riverbend Festival.