By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
Andy Samuelson had walked through the Wind River Canyon many times wondering what the canyon would look like from above.
It’s undoubtedly a common question for many outdoor enthusiasts, but Riverton’s fifth-grade math and science teacher – who is also a hot air balloon pilot – was in a unique position to act on the impulse. .
On January 16, he and his friend Chris Jones became the first two people to ever pilot a hot air balloon through the canyon.
The couple took off in the Cloud Kisser IV, one of two hot air balloons owned by the town of Riverton, from Boysen State Park in the bitter cold of an early morning. The 21-mile trip to Thermopolis required a cruise altitude of up to 7,300 feet to keep the balloon above the edge of the vertical canyon walls, approximately 2,800 feet above the canyon floor.
Video and photos taken by Jones and posted on Samuelson’s Facebook page make the trip easy. From the woven basket, the two look rather relaxed as Samuelson periodically gives the ball a few heat shots to stay above the jagged peaks and the winding, winding river below.
Cars and trucks are captured in frozen stills entering and exiting the tunnel as the balloon flies overhead. What you can’t see in these images is the skill required to weave between the canyon walls in a balloon.
For starters, there’s no way to lead.
As Samuelson explained in a very simplified version of how balloons work, essentially a balloon is guided by altitude.
When the air is heated inside the balloon – or envelope, as it’s technically called – the air becomes less dense. When it expands, it rises.
Just like a cup of coffee, the balloon cools down during its flight.
To maintain altitude, a heat stroke must be provided to stay level. While ascending and descending, the pilot can take advantage of different wind directions to follow his desired line of travel.
What is less easily explained is the art of flying, which requires understanding how to read the density of the air in the envelope relative to the outside air, especially when the balloon rises to higher altitudes where the air is much thinner.
Also not captured in the video, Samuelson told Jones to turn off the camera and focus on helping him fly the flight.
In fact, at one point, Samuelson told Jones that he hoped Jones had gotten some great photos so he could enjoy looking at them when they landed.
Because he was too busy piloting the balloon to enjoy the view.
The first of the seven theories
The trip involved a lot of thought and planning, Samuelson said, because every balloon journey involves some level of risk. This trip had several, which the pilots did not take lightly.
The most important thing for the trip was to choose a day with good weather.
In this case, they were looking for winds that were light enough to allow a smooth launch but strong enough to cross the canyon.
Ideally, they wanted an early morning launch with winds between zero and seven knots as well as a cold, fast day that allows for better flying. Their equipment also had to be top-notch, which they had in the Sky Kisser IV, a new balloon with top-notch craftsmanship. They also added extra propane, way beyond what was needed, just in case.
The key to successful flight is minimizing risk with excessive practice and over-planning, Samuelson said.
To this end, the two pilots planned seven different scenarios for the flight.
“The first option is actually what happened in reality,” he said.
They determined that winds would increase inside the canyon due to the venturi effect, which causes wind to blow between narrow canyon walls.
One such explosion pulled them through the canyon at 27 mph, at which time they rose above the canyon walls. They were unable to return to the canyon itself until the final leg of the trip. They also lifted to navigate around the two large dams.
Overall, their flight went exactly as planned – almost.
A bit of turbulence
Samuelson and Jones were caught off guard by a rotor wind, which resembles a wave of air moving left to right across a mountain range.
When the wave goes over a ridge, it’s pretty gentle, Samuelson said, but when it comes down the other side, it gets choppy, making a balloon ride a lot like trying to navigate the rapids.
Fortunately, that didn’t spin the balloon, he said, and the pilots tried to bring the balloon down a bit gently when hit by a downward gust of air.
Suddenly, the air temperature dropped 20 to 30 degrees and the balloon began to dive at a rate of 1,000 feet per minute, faster than a skydiver falling with an open parachute, Samuelson said.
About 500 feet above the cliffs, they were able to arrest their descent and stabilize the balloon using dual burners to heat the air in the envelope.
“It felt like we were falling down a hole,” Samuelson said. “It probably only lasted 10 seconds – until we started climbing again at 1,000 feet per minute.”
They foresaw this might happen, he noted.
Another thing the two didn’t expect was much nicer – the view from above.
Although they spent quite a bit of time studying satellite images of the canyon on Google Earth, they saw a lot of things they would never have seen from satellite or from the ground.
For starters, the size of the canyon, which Samuelson described as “big country, big canyons sticking out of the main canyon.”
The clouds, too, were spectacular at eye level, especially the caps forming on top of the mountains, he said.
It was impressive for both drivers who are now considering their next challenge.
Become a pilot
Samuelson became addicted to hot air ballooning after taking part in his first Riverton Balloon Rally three years ago.
The event made him wonder how much one of these balloons cost and what a person had to do to learn how to fly one.
Like used cars and other gear, Samuelson found a wide range of costs — from $4,000 at the low end to over $45,000, which he said didn’t seem entirely out of the question.
He had also just suffered a fairly serious cut on his hand during a construction project which left him at home recovering from surgery with time off to do a lot of research.
As he learned, the town of Riverton is unique in that it is the only municipality in the country to have two hot air balloons.
Even better, the city also employed a veteran balloon pilot, Pat Newlin, who was also teaching classes at the time, so Samuelson decided to check it out.
Flying was nothing new to him. He had been an avid paraglider for 15 years before he married and started a family.
“Paragliding was a selfish sport,” he said. “It’s just me and the guys all alone in the middle of nowhere. It’s not really safe to go out alone.
He gave up paragliding for the sake of his family and personal safety and he wanted to find an activity that would also involve his wife Jolene and three school-aged daughters, Maggie, Abby and Emily.
A few months later, he started taking flight lessons in January 2019, he had his pilot’s license. He took over Newlin’s position as an instructor in 2021.
Push the envelope
Unsurprisingly, the hot air balloon community is small. So small, in fact, that Samuelson can tick off a list of his fellow pilots in the Rockies for one.
They had invited a few of these other pilots to join them on the Saturday trip to Wind River Canyon, but it didn’t work with their schedules.
One thing that pilots always encourage themselves to do is to literally “push the limits” and try safer, but increasingly daring new adventures, like flying through the canyon.
While it’s great to use the hot air balloon on occasional trips locally or at the many hot air balloon festivals across the country and the world throughout the year, Samuelson said, “pushing the boundaries” involves pushing the balloon to maximize all its features.
To that end, Samuelson already has quite a few feats under his belt, including the canyon trip.
To date, he has completed a few “long jump flights”, over 30 miles, and climbed to altitudes of 14,000 feet above sea level. He and his family make regular trips of 60 70 hours per year – or about once a week on average.
It also gives lessons and takes passengers for rides for a fee throughout the season and during the annual hot air balloon festival. Samuelson and Jones had spoken to balloonists in the late 1970s and 1980s about their plans for the canyon trip.
The balloonists, who had flown over the summit of Yellowstone National Park at 18,000 feet, told Samuel and Jones that they were indeed the first they knew of to thread the canyon and called them to congratulate them on their achievement.
“Hot air balloons are always proud that someone is doing something safe and adventurous,” Samuelson said.
Samuelson said he plans to do the trip again and added that he won’t do much differently, flying over the canyon in much the same way.
He also has other flights planned, including a flight from Dubois to Riverton, which is a 75-mile flight and would be his longest yet. He would like to jump the Wind Rivers Mountains and attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Schedule permitting, he will likely participate in the International Hot Air Balloon Rally in Canada this summer and is also considering trips to festivals in Mexico, Italy, France, Vietnam and Taiwan.
As Samuelson noted, the sky is the limit.