This is a true story……..
“OK….it’s gonna go down one of two ways, and you ain’t gonna like either one of them”, barked the Deputy Sheriff in his light green uniform.
(Research has shown that when a law enforcement officer wears a light colored uniform, they tend to be less aggressive as compared to a dark one.)
Deputy Havinafitz obviously didn’t get the memo.
But I am getting way ahead of myself.
My friend Wayne Larkin and I decided to take my hot air balloon out for a fun flight last Sunday morning. The night before, I checked the winds and the weather as I always do and then double checked with the FAA at 5:00am the next morning right before we left the house.
Flying in Palm Bay, FL requires a lot of “target flying”, which means you can’t just jump in the balloon and go all willy-nilly. It requires planning. You need to calculate where to take off so you can land in a safe place down wind.
Florida has gators on the left and the big blue ocean on the right. So if you don’t stay between the two, it can ruin your whole day. Reviewing the map and wind direction, the town of Fellsmere seemed like a logical launch site.
So we headed south.
The inflation of the balloon was uneventful and we were on our way. I climbed to a 1000 feet and unfortunately, the winds were not as predicted. The FAA had predicted the winds would be out of 150 degrees azimuth (compass reading). They were more like 135 degrees.
This meant we were going to miss our landing spot.
In the Northern hemisphere, the winds will usually turn further to the right as you climb higher. So I did. All the way to 6000 feet.
No luck we were still heading 135 degrees straight towards the gators!
I could see we only had one last road to try and land on before all hell broke loose. I descended the balloon as fast as I could without scaring the hell out of my passenger. I managed to maneuver to the last road before 40 miles of snakes and gators and placed the balloon right on it.
After flying 15 miles, we had only missed are intended landing spot by about 200 yards. The problem was there was a drainage creek between us and where we wanted to be with no way to get across.
The dirt road we were standing on appeared to extend for miles in both directions, both north and south. We were not sure which way was the shortest to walk out and thus hook up with our chase vehicle.
After some excessive scratching of the heads and other body parts, Wayne said “Why don’t’ we call the fire department? They are pretty nice guys and it’s Sunday morning. They don’t have anything to do. Maybe they know this road fairly well and can tell us which way to go.”
I thought to myself, nothing good could ever come out of contacting the authorities on our own free will.
But I didn’t want Wayne to die of heat stroke walking forever in the wrong direction either. I guess it was the smart thing to do. They could just get on Google Maps and look at the aerial view to help us.
I called 411 information; “Hello, can I get the number to the Palm Bay Fire Department please? And, to be clear, This is NOT an emergency.”
“Is this an Emergency?” She asked.
I had to restrain from saying, what the hell did I just say?
“No ma’am, it is not an emergency.”
“I’ll put you through to Palm Bay Station 91”
“Palm Bay Fire Department.”
“Yes hi. My name is Mark Fox. I am a hot air balloonist and we landed west of Bayside Lakes. We are fine, no one is hurt, but were wondering if you were familiar with where we are and could tell us which way to head on the dirt road. Maybe look at Google Maps or something.”
“Is anyone hurt?”
“Umm….No” (wow, what did I just say)
The Fireman fumbled around, cussing at the computer for about 15 min. It was clear he didn’t know the roads very well.
“Do you have GPS on your phone? If you tell me the position, we could come out and throw a ladder across the creek and get you. Then you could hook up with your chase vehicle and figure out the best way to retrieve the balloon after that.”
Sounded like a swell idea. Maybe the Fire Station call was a good idea after all.
“Latitude, North 27 degrees, 56 minutes, 44 seconds. Longitude West 80 degrees, 46 minutes, 33 seconds.”
“Got it. We will be out there in 5-10 minutes to pick you up.”
“Wow, Wayne that was really a good idea you had, calling the fire department.”
25 minutes later we were starting to wonder. Then my cell phone rang.
“Is this the hot air balloon that crashed?”
“No we didn’t crash. We landed perfectly safe.”
“How serious are your injuries?”
“We are not injured. Who told you that?”
“Where the hell are you at?”
“We gave the GPS coordinates to the fire station already.”
“Well give them to me again.”
“We will call you back in 10 minutes.”
Wayne said, “What the hell is going on?”
“I am not sure.”
Another 30 minutes or so and the phone rang again.
“Can you hear the sirens yet?”
“SIRENS! Why the hell are there sirens involved?”
“Can you here them?”
About 10 minutes later we here sirens. They manage to get about 200 yards from us but they can’t seem to get any closer than that. Then for no reason, it looks like they just turned around and left. I guess the drainage creek was too much of a hassle to cross on a Sunday.
“Now what?” Wayne asked.
“I think we would be better off on our own. Let’s walk north; I am guessing it has to run into Malabar Road eventually.”
So we started to walk towards the north. Phone rings again.
“This is the Palm Bay Police Dispatch. Is this the hot air balloonists that crashed?”
“We didn’t (fucking mumbled) crash.”
“How serious are your injuries?”
“We are not injured. We decided to just walk out towards the north end of the road.”
“Wait! Don’t move we are sending a helicopter out to get you right away!”
“HELICOPTER!! Don’t send a helicopter! Are you freaking kidding me?”
“Let me call you back.”
About 20 minutes later I hear an airplane. Sounds like a Cessna. Yep there it is. Wow he is flying low, about 300 feet or so.
Then he starts circling a point on the road where the balloon was resting.
“Wayne, these morons called the Civil Air Patrol.
About 5 minutes later, 2 more airplanes, a total of 3 were circling the balloon basket.
Another phone call.
“This is the Palm Bay Police. We think we know were you are. Where is your chase vehicle?”
“I told my wife just to go home and wait until we walked out to a road and could tell here were we were.”
“OK fine we will come get you, show you were the gate is. You can the call her and go pick the balloon up.”
40 minutes later here comes the police car.
“Do you guys have any guns on you?”
“No, of course not”
“Well you should. You are walking down this road without a gun? There are all kinds of poisonous snakes that sit in the grass and just wait for rabbits to hop down the road and kill them. But that’s the least of you worries. Do you know how many gators and wild boars are out here?”
On the cop car ride out, the two officers were nice enough to us. When I told them I have a friend, who is friends with their chief of police, they were quick to volunteer themselves for letters of accommodation. They told me there last names, but all I heard was “Turner and Hooch.”
Then I called my wife to tell her where to meet us.
As we got to the gate, Barb was just coming down the road.
OK great, this fiasco is finally over.
Right then a Sheriff’s car came squealing up and power-slid in sideways to the parking lot.
“OK fella’s thanks for the good work. This is our jurisdiction now. We can handle it from here.”
He waved the Palm Bay officers good bye.
“OK….it’s going to go down one of two ways, and you not going to like either one of them.”
“What? I thought we were done here. The two officers that just left told us it was no problem; we could just drive in and get our balloon.”
“Dream on sonny. You need to follow me back to the park entrance; we’ve got a lot to discuss.”
So we follow him.
“Now tell me exactly what the hell happened.”
So I covered all the winds, FAA predictions, Fire Station, Sirens, Civil Air Patrol, being “gun-less”, and the whole gamut.
“What time did you take off?”
Wayne said, “Seven Twenty Two.”
“Don’t be a smart ass, sonny.”
“No, he just happened to know the exact time, because I make 1st time passengers look at their watch. When you do paid flights, an hour always seems like 20 minutes on your 1st ride. You are so excited, time really fly’s bye. So you have to make them look at their own watch so you can prove it has been a whole hour.”
Nothing but stink-eye.
Another hour of interrogation and filing out forms. He was determined to arrest us for something, but just couldn’t put his finger on it. After exhausting all his options he decided there was not way to send us to the electric chair.
Then he sprung it on us.
“Well actually, this is St. Johns Water District property, so we need to call another Sherriff department so they can approve you going in.”
“You have got to be Shit’en me.”
“They may or may not let you in. I’ll have to see if I can pull some strings.”
He made several secret phone calls.
“Well it’s your lucky day. He said he will let you in, but he needs to escort you. He can’t be here for an hour or so, because he has to go clock in for double time and fill up his truck with gas.”
Again, “You have got to be Shit’en me.”
He finally shows up.
8 hours later, we were home finally drinking our Champagne.
Here is the final Sherriff report summary:
Two gay balloonist’s gondola exploded in air on an early morning flight from Miami. The balloon was totaled; pilot and passenger were severely injured. The fiery balloon scattered debris over a 12 square mile area of the St. Jones Water District.
Due to as unprecedented coordination between Palm Bay Police, Palm Bay Fire Department, and several Sherriff Office Divisions, the two balloonist managed to escape certain death.
All authorities involved have been nominated for Law Enforcement Officer of the Year.
Note to Self
Never, ever voluntarily call authorities unless someone in your party has at least two internal organs exposed.
Human Communication is ever accurate. Some days it’s so pathetic it has to be laughable.
I hate to think what would happen, if we really were hurt 🙁