I meet my ground crew at the balloon festival's launch field while all these guys are getting ready to setup and launch their balloons. We brief the landing area, the spectator lines, etc, etc, etc. Establish air/ground communications and all that stuff, then the balloon crew and I depart for the launch site. All the other balloons are going to launch from my landing area and go downwind, while I'm going upwind to launch and come downwind over the field to exit and land there.
My confidence in the balloon's ability to deliver me to a reasonably acceptable exit point is rather low, unfortunately, even though the balloon pilot keeps telling me they have the perfect launch point, don't sweat it. All I know is that I have about 1/2 mile cross-range ability under canopy when opening about 3000 ft, and I don't want to test that.
While they're shoving air in the envelope of the balloon prior to launch, I'm trying out the basket for snag points and foot holds. Ray, the pilot, shows me how he'd prefer I launched (standing on the edge of the basket, holding the upright supports, and stepping off without swaying the basket). I practice a couple of times on the ground to get the feel for it and let the pilot's wife take photos.
Ray heats the balloon, the crew holds it down while he burns and we finally launch. There are four of us in the balloon: Ray, me, and two passengers. We zoom through 1000 ft rather quickly (a minute or so) and we're up through 2000 ft before I know it. I can see the landing area to the northeast with balloons launching out of it, and I'll be damned if we're not tracking right for it. This is my first ["BEER!"] time in a balloon, and I'm focusing on the jump and not enjoying the ride, so I take a couple of seconds to look around and see what I'm doing here.
Ray gets on the radio and contacts the local approach control to tell them our status, as we're right under the edge of their airspace. I contact my ground crew on the radio and they inform me that there are still balloons setting up in the landing area. Uh oh. I told him we were less that 10 minutes out. Can they launch in 10 minutes? Big fat negative. They're not happy that we're telling them to hold up, and we're not happy that they're still in the landing area. They were all supposed to be gone by then. We're passing through 4000 feet on our way to 5000 now, and I tell my ground crew that I'm going for the alternate field, a fenced-in ball diamond about 200 yards south of my primary field. My ground crew run for the alternate to set up my target (how thoughtful!). We call ATC and give them a five minute call. I call the ground and give them the five minute call.
Now we're floating at 5000 ft, and man, is the view cool. I tighten my legstraps, check all my handles, and get on the correct side of the balloon. I look straight down. We're tracking directly for the alternate field. My confidence in the balloon pilot has gone WAY up. We're totally dead on. I couldn't have gotten a better spot in a Cessna. We're still over the built up part of the town, and I can see the balloon ground crew stuck in town traffic bailing out of the chase vehicle to watch my exit.
I look at Ray. "OK, man, that's it.. let's do it.." He puts the balloon in a "terminal descent," causing the balloon to descend at 700 feet per minute. He's concerned about rebound after I exit. Losing 230lbs of me and gear is not going to be pretty.
I'm over the field now, and he says, "OK, we're at about 500 feet per minute.." I climb up on the edge.. Oddly enough, my heart is not pounding like I expected it to be. This is all pretty calm overall. I look at the kid who has my camcorder. "Rolling?" He nods. Gosh, I hope he knows what he's doing with that thing. I look down. I'm directly over the little river that is the southwestern boundary of the small park. Just a tad downwind. In this wind, that's not a factor. Altimeter? 4200 feet. High. Rather be high than low.
I look at Ray. "Thanks, Ray! Three.. two.. one.. see ya!" and step off.
The basket rushes in front of my face, I arch hard like a student. Wind starts rushing past my ears. Jesus, this is just like the frickin' bridge was. Shit, I shoulda looked up at the balloon going away. Dummy. I look up and the balloon is getting smaller. Cool. I look at my altimeter. I'm blowing through 3500 ft. I had decided not to wear goggles, so now the slipstream is tearing at my eyelids. Nice. That's gonna leave a mark.
3000 feet on the altimeter. I'm at terminal, and my eyes are not happy. Time to dump. (I had planned to dump at 2000 ft, but I was a little downwind and I wanted to make sure I could get back). Good opening and I stow my slider while looking out for errant outbound balloons. There is a balloon below me about 1500 ft down. Hehehe. Maybe I'll swoop his slow ass! I notice the target in the landing area. Nice. Kudos to my ground crew.
The balloon that just launched is coming my way (Or, maybe I'm going his way). The vent on the top (called, oddly enough, a parachute) is a big yellow smiley face. Briefly I think "I should dot Mr. Smiley's eye with a nice swoop.." and then discretion gets the better of me. I spiral down and zoom by him about 500 feet horizontally away. That's close enough for all of us.
Time to setup for the landing. Couple S-turns, since I'm a little high, and I'm suddenly on final. My ground crew leader had warned me that the light standards on the outfield had big nets between 'em to keep fly balls out of the other ball diamond and I had told him to bias the target toward the upwind side of the field, but my target is between shortstop and left field. Yikes, dude, could you have put it a little closer to the center of the field? Those nets are mighty scary looking.
I swooped in about 5 meters short of the target and ran over to stomp the X, much to the delight of the crowd. There were a couple hundred people watching around the field. They start clapping. Wow, this demo jump stuff is cool.
My ground crew leader runs up to high-five me, then hands me the radio mic. Ray the pilot is on the horn. "Dude, you scared the SHIT out of me!" (People zooming away from you in freefall always look lower than they are.. he thought I was never going to open.)
Lessons learned from this successful jump?
1) the circular in the SIM is misprinted and says "4-5 days" for submission of the FAA Form 7711-2. Try again. Its _45_ days. Sooner is better, and while I submitted mine about 35 days in advance, they still processed it. Next time, the 45 days thing will be a rule. The FSDO guys were pretty cool about it, though.
2) Alternates are good.
3) Balloon pilots are slow.
4) Don't take on any more than you can handle safely, and don't let "Let's do it!" get the better of you. If it ain't safe, why bother?
5) Balloon pilots have ground crews. They like to drink, too.
Overall? Successful mission. Do it again? Damn straight. I told them that if they wanted a demo jump next year to let me know and we'd schedule it for all four days of the festival to account for weather.