Lessons from a Hot Air Balloon

The other day, a friend posted this quote from Maya Angelou on his Facebook page: “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”

What does it mean to be amazing? And to whom? Your story plays the key role in making you extraordinary. The main challenge that everyone faces is deciding, “Who should I matter to?”

This summer, I rode in a hot air balloon for the first time. My friend, Jon, prepaid two tickets for the ride last year. Due to high winds and other weather conditions, the flight was rescheduled several times. Finally on August 20, 2012 at 2:30 pm, Jon received a solid confirmation that the sunset ride was a go. We left Chicago at 3:30 pm and drove to a small airport in Joliet, IL. We were the first to arrive at 5:00pm. Fifteen minutes later, the flight crew showed up in a white twelve-foot van with all the equipment in tow. I immediately recognized the “giant picnic basket” which I assumed would be carrying passengers. It’s technically called the gondola. Ours had three burners at the top that reminded me of flame throwers.

Jon volunteered to hold the ropes that held the balloon envelope open while large fans blew air in to inflate it. This took more than twenty minutes. Meanwhile, other passengers had arrived. When more than half the balloon was inflated, our captain, Bill,  turned on the fuel tanks and ignited the burners. Three bursts of flames got the envelope fully inflated and raised. We were ready for lift off.

“All aboard!” Everyone climbed in — ten passengers and Bill. He ignited the burners a few more times as we gently floated higher. We all learned to look away from the burners as they gave the backs of our necks a good dry sauna treatment.

The balloon was not designed to be propelled so we had to rely on an occasional gentle wind for direction. It was a tranquil ride with a view of Joliet and neighboring Shorewood below that looked like a Monopoly board game filled with cookie-cutter homes. The Chicago skyline was hazy in the distance. The air around us was still and the sounds below that were audible came from cars speeding, children playing and dogs barking.

After floating for forty-five minutes at 2,000 ft., Bill found a good spot to land — an empty lot next to a CVS.

As the balloon descended, the voices of kids got louder.  1,000 ft.

We looked down to find that there were several in the parks and playgrounds who had spotted us and were waving. Some of them started running in our direction. 500 ft.

The adults got in on the action chasing after the kids. Others who were driving stopped in the middle of the street and got out of their cars. 200 ft.

“Bend your knees once we hit ground,” Bill coached us for the landing. 100 ft.

Thud! The basket rocked a bit at touchdown, but it was a safe landing overall. Here’s where it gets even more interesting.

People came from all directions with their cameras and smartphones. Sirens were blaring from two police cars and two fire engines that arrived at the scene. One of the cops approached us and asked, “Who’s in-charge?”

We soon learned that people had called 911 to report a balloon crashing in the vicinity. While I admired their vigilance, I was fascinated by what was going on in their minds when they saw our balloon. They’ve seen airplanes heading for a landing at Midway Airport every day. But they assume differently when they see a balloon?

People always make assumptions about what they see. They complete the story in their minds and believe it to be the truth. How are you perceived? Are you just another normal airplane? Or are you an amazingly colorful balloon that’s a whole new experience and stops people in their tracks? If you are that strange balloon coming down from the sky, do you propel yourself to where children are excited to welcome you or do you rely on the wind that could take you to skeptical and nervous adults?

After talking for almost a half hour, the sheriff and Bill shook hands and spectators were leaving the scene one by one. The airport crew arrived soon after to wrap things up. After they packed the balloon and basket back in the trailer, all passengers got in the van and we drove back to the airport. Bill thanked us with a Champagne toast.

“Cheers!” It was an amazing way to end what turned out to be not a normal day.

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