How to Fly a Balloon Over the Grand Canyon

January 21, 2010 at 5:13 pm 3 comments

Earlier this week I promised you more photos and details from Jeff Snyder ’02, who owns a hot-air balloon company in Vermont and who piloted a balloon over Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona on Sunday. It turns out that after Jeff sent me the photos from his flight, I had questions for him—and when I e-mailed the questions to him, he suggested that the easiest thing would be for me to just give him a call. So I did, and ended up learning a lot about what it takes to do a balloon ride like this. Here’s the story, in his own words.

“Jon Radowski is a fellow balloonist who lives in Pennsylvania and needed to drive to California to purchase some balloon equipment. He asked me if I wanted to go along. After I said yes, he said, ‘Here’s the itinerary.’ And one of the items on the agenda was, ‘We’re going to attempt to fly the Grand Canyon.’

Jeff and Jon at the airport in the wee hours, before the flight. (Nice Penn State sweatshirt!)

“We actually did not fly directly over the canyon. You can, but there are altitude requirements that complicate things, and the winds have to be just right. And there are only certain places you can land—you can’t land anywhere in the park, and you can’t land on Navajo land.

“You need oxygen if you’re going to spend any time above 14,000 feet, or if you’re going to be above 12,500 feet for more than 30 minutes. So we had to take an oxygen system in the basket. We also did fuel calculations and figured out that we needed to take more fuel tanks with us. And, for some reason, you can’t get a propane tank refilled out there after dark, so I had to bribe a guy with a pint of Vermont maple syrup to get the tanks fueled.

Jeff, with the South Rim behind him. (Nice Penn State hat!)

“Jon contacted the manager of the Grand Canyon Airport for permission to take off from there. We took off at 8:30 a.m. local time and headed north.

“We went to just under 18,000 feet. Anything above that is Class A airspace, which is reserved for commercial jets and military operations. So we spent most of the flight at about 17,500.

“The temperature in the basket was minus 18, I believe, vs. about 6 degrees above zero on the ground. We took some hard-boiled eggs with us as a snack, and they froze during the flight. Even after we peeled them, it felt like there was a shell on them.

Another spectacular view. Click on any of these photos to see them bigger.

“We had hoped to get over the heart of the canyon, then take a right, and eventually land along U.S. route 89. But there was a high pressure system sitting directly over the canyon, and we ended up having to turn sooner than planned.”

“Jon did a lot in-flight navigation. I’d tell him, ‘We’re heading this way at this speed; where will that put us?’ There’s a part of the park where you can’t be below 10,500 feet, for noise-abatement reasons—that came about because there used to be so many tour helicopters flying below the rim of the canyon. And we also were trying to avoid a MOA, or Military Operation Area, that’s located southeast of the canyon. There’s a site called SkyVector.com that shows you all of these things.

Jeff and Jon landed the balloon along route 64, near the bottom of this photo.

“We covered 33.6 miles in three hours and 21 minutes, and we ended up landing along route 64. We landed right between a highway marker and a ‘Fire Danger Today—Low’ sign.

“It wasn’t an earth shatteringly difficult flight, but a flight like that takes three things: careful planning, knowledge of the area, and some luck in terms of the weather.

“It would have been nice to actually go over the canyon, but the wind and weather would have to be just right. And you could wait a long time for a day like that.”

Tina Hay, editor

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg Cresswell '69  |  January 23, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Ah …… so Penn State Proud. Nicely done Jeff and Tina.

  • 2. Cathy Snyder  |  January 26, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Nice and informative article Tina and Jeff. Fantastic opportunity and rewarding experience for skilled Hot Air Balloon Pilots Jeff Snyder & Jon Radowsk,i very impressive.

  • 3. Linda Vercillo-Woronecki  |  January 29, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Great flight Jeff! I was getting dizzy just from looking at the pictures! Looked like an awesome flight! Very talented you are! Can’t wait to come to Vermont to see your talents and skills in action! Linda

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