A New View

Floating High with Endeavor Ballooning Flying Adventures

Danielle Martin

You may have seen us floating there above Huffine Lane on your morning commute to work on July 1st. With the sun rising to our east we gently drifted with the breeze from the warming mountains over Bozeman’s western edge. Delighted people sipping coffee on their back patios stood up to wave at us as the big hot air balloon began its slow rise in elevation above the sleepy Gallatin Valley.

Earlier that morning, at around 6:15 am, dawn breaks over the Bridger Foothills as Colin Graham and his ground crew break out the hot air balloon from a large bag located in the back of his Ford pickup. As they carefully unwrap the massive folds of fabric and rope onto the grassy yard behind the Grace Bible Church his wife Brittany Graham waits by the entrance to the parking lot to greet today’s clients.

Today’s hot air balloon flight was booked by Brett Gary, 55, a Bozeman native but New York resident who is here today to celebrate his mother, Peg Gary’s 91st birthday. The Gary’s wait by the edge of the grass as the Balloon is quickly laid out by Eric Stratton, 23, and Jakob Sax, 22, the MSU student ground crew that Colin has hired for the summer. After being unstrapped and filled with air by a large fan, the long length of fabric begins to take its iconic balloon shape.

Like every hot air balloon you have seen floating in the sky this balloon is brightly colored with stripes of dark red and blue at the bottom radiating up to a band of bright yellow at the widest part up top. There are two flags attached to it, the stars and stripes and a yellow flag with the “don’t tread on me” insignia.

Once it is filled with air by the fan, the basket that is laying on its side gets the furnace attached to it and the air inside begins to heat. As it heats the balloon gently lifts to its upright position where it is tied to the back of the truck and held down by the crew until lift off.

“The two burners we used today can produce up to 15 million BTU’s of heat each” said Colin. 120,000 cubic feet of air is inside the balloon. “That is 120,000 basketballs you could put in there which is what we tell the kids” adds Brittany. “Our biggest balloon is 210,000 basketballs.”  

I am the first one in the basket, then Mrs. Gary and her son. While we wait in the basket for liftoff our small talk is interrupted by loud blasts of heat from the furnace. “How tall is it” Mr. Gary asks, “that is about 7 and a half stories” Colin replies.

Once inside we can feel it bobbing and swaying with the wind, like a live animal fighting against the crew that is holding us down. After removing the auxiliary propane tank used to preheat the air Colin lays out the flight rules.

“Behind you guys is of course a tank and a hose, and up here is a hose as well, those are not grab points” he emphasizes while Brittany points out the handles and edges we can grab on to. “When we come in to land I want you guys to stand facing the direction of movement which will always be this way” as he points toward himself and his mounted IPad navigation. “Whichever way the IPad is facing we’re going to be landing.” He adds that when we land we should bend our knees and not get out of the balloon until we’ve been told to do so.

“Thanks boys, see you on the ground” Colin says, “Here we go!” adds Brittany.

The takeoff is extremely gentle like watching your birthday balloons float away. I didn’t even notice we were untied until I began to see the ground start to shrink below us. The sensation makes you feel giddy and I begin to giggle a little.
“Welcome aboard Wandering Endeavor” Colin says “it was once our flag ship but we don’t fly it a whole lot these days, we’ve got a bigger one.”

We begin a gradual climb and start to drift a little towards the northwest. Colin makes his initial contact with the Bozeman Airport flight control center. Letting them know our position, elevation and direction. “Everybody good so far?” he asks us.

As we rise and rise, 360 degree sweeping vistas begin to unfurl themselves around us. The breeze begins to get a little colder. Mr. Gary begins to explain that he is a historian in New York that teaches at a media studies department at NYU. Colin says that Brittany is getting her master’s degree in education administration and has a bachelor’s degree in deaf education.

“Brittany never gets to fly so it’s kind of nice to have her with us” Colin says.
“How are you doing mother?” Mr. Gary asks. “Oh, I’m doing fine” she replies with a little more excitement than before, staring out towards the blue and white Spanish Peaks as they are bathed in sunrise pink and yellow.

Looking down directly below, subdivisions, trailer courts, and roads begin to take on familiar repeating patterns like geometric art. The bursts of heat from the furnace come from above with Colin continually tweaking our path and elevation.
“How long have you been ballooning?” Mr. Gary asks “15 years in 33 states and 6 countries” says Colin.

The Grahams say that Colin has been obsessed with Ballooning since the “age of 3 when a balloon landed in his family’s yard.” He chased balloons with his father as a child, and at the “age of 14, he obtained his private pilot’s license, then his commercial license at the age of 18.”

“We’re only about 200 feet right now, we’ll get really high here in a little while” Colin says.

The radio chatter from the air traffic control tower is constant as Colin has to continually keep them updated on our position as we rise into their air space.  
 “About 800 feet now, we might get really high today. I want to get really really high, as long as y’all don’t mind” Colin says with his Virginia accent creeping in as he pushes the balloon father up into the sky.

“It’s a nice view” chimes Brittany “1000 feet it says.” The view is sublime; it’s hard to decide between snapping photos and simply relishing the experience.

Colin says his highest elevation ever achieved in a hot air balloon was “just shy of 17000 feet, but not in Bozeman.”

Look at those peaks oh my goodness” says Brittany. The snow-tipped Spanish Peaks and the Gallatin Range look like a great wall. The foothills leading into the valley have deep cuts in them where rivers and streams have carved their paths.
Soaring even higher we see a slight haze settling over the valley making the sun large and star-like as its rays reach deep towards the ground. We are approaching our highest elevation of 6,000 feet. We can no longer see little people and cars just mountains, rivers, roads and the shiny tops of large buildings. This is not a good time to look straight down I tell myself but proceed to do it anyway. Here snapping photos stops and I just breathe in this beautiful little piece of the world I call home.   

We begin to descend more quickly than we rose, crossing Huffine lane over Mattress Mill still heading towards the northwest. Colin begins deciding where to land, the whole time on the radio with his ground crew so they can meet us. We have somehow made it over Black Bull golf course and they say that “People tend to get mad when we land on their golf course” so he decides on a road just beyond where some new houses are being built.   

The landing is soft as well, we bump down and the crew runs over to hold us down so we can get out. I am the first one off, the ground feeling a little less exciting than it did just a short hour before. It is now just before 8:00 am and it feels amazing to have already accomplished so much. A construction crew building a house nearby comes out to look at the spectacle of a balloon landing right next to them.

Brittany has set up a table with champagne and T-shirts. “Come on over” she says “We’re going to have a party” and begins to tell us a story about the first balloon flight in France in 1783 that ended in the first pilots sharing champagne with the farmers who had never seen anything like it and were naturally very scared. “The champagne is now a tradition” so we raise our glasses and say the balloonists prayer which goes “The Winds have Welcomed you with softness. The Sun has blessed you with his warm hands. You have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in your laughter and set you gently back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth. Congratulations on your flight!”  

As I am scrolling through my Facebook on July 2nd I see a picture of a brightly colored hot air balloon framed by the Bridgers and colored by the sunrise with the caption “such a beautiful way to start the morning.” Immediately I recognize the balloon as the one I got to fly in the previous day. The Graham’s reflect on how warm of a reception Bozeman has given them as they began their business here just last year. Brittany said “Bozeman has been very good to us.” She adds that some communities don’t like being floated over but with “Bozeman everyone has been so friendly.”

The Grahams hope to be able to move to Bozeman full time in the future. They currently offer balloon rides May through September in the Gallatin Valley and Big Sky. They can be found at MontanaBalloon.com

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