Andy Samuelson had driven through the Wind River Canyon on multiple occasions wondering what the canyon would look like from above.
It’s no doubt a common question for many outdoor enthusiasts, but the Riverton fifth-grade math and science teacher – who is also an air balloon pilot – was in a unique position to act on the impulse.
On Jan. 16, he and his friend Chris Jones became the first two people believed to have ever piloted a hot air balloon through the canyon.
The pair lifted off in the Cloud Kisser IV, one of Riverton’s two city-owned hot air balloons, from Boysen State Park in the biting cold of an early morning. The 21-mile trip to Thermopolis required a cruising altitude of up to 7,300 feet to keep the balloon above the rim of the canyon’s vertical walls — about 2,800 feet above the canyon floor.
Video and photos taken by Jones and posted on Samuelson’s Facebook page make the voyage look easy. From the woven basket, both look pretty relaxed as Samuelson periodically gives the balloon a couple blasts of heat to stay above the jagged peaks and the twisty, meandering river below.
Cars and trucks are captured in frozen stills entering and exiting the tunnel while the balloon flies overhead. What you can’t see in those images is the skill required to thread between the canyon walls in a balloon.
For starters, there is no way to steer.
As Samuelson explained in a very dumbed-down version of how balloons work, essentially, a balloon is guided by altitude.
When the air is heated inside the balloon – or envelope, as it is technically called – the air becomes less dense. When it expands, it rises.
Just like a cup of coffee, the balloon cools as it is flown.
To maintain altitude, a shot of heat must be provided to stay level. By rising and falling, 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 an understanding of how to read the density of air in the envelope versus the air outside, particularly as the balloon ascends into higher altitudes where the air is much thinner.
Also not captured in the video is where Samuelson told Jones to turn off the camera and focus on helping him pilot the flight.
In fact, at one point, Samuelson told Jones that he hoped Jones had gotten great shots 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 seven theories
A lot of thought and planning went into the trip, Samuelson said, because every balloon trip has a certain level of risk. This trip had several, which the pilots didn’t take lightly.
Paramount to the trip was choosing a day with good weather.
In this case, they were looking for winds light enough to allow for a trouble-free launch but strong enough to get through the canyon.
Ideally, they wanted an early morning launch with winds between zero and seven knots as well as a cold, brisk day that makes for better flying. Their equipment also needed to be top notch, which they had in the Sky Kisser IV, a new balloon with top-of-the-line craftsmanship. They also threw on extra propane, well over what was needed, just in case.
The key to a successful flight is to to minimize the risk with excessive practice and over-planning, Samuelson said.
To this end, the two pilots planned for seven different scenarios for the flight.
“The first option is actually what happened in reality,” he said.
They determined that the winds would increase inside the canyon due to the venturi effect, which causes a blast of wind between the narrow canyon walls.
One such blast shot them through the canyon at 27 mph, at which point, they rose above the canyon walls. They were not able to get back into the canyon itself until the final leg of the trip. They also lifted out to navigate around the two big dams.
All in all, their flight went exactly as planned — almost.
A bit of turbulence
Samuelson and Jones were caught off guard by a rotor wind, which is like a wave of air cresting from left to right across a mountain range.
When the wave goes over the top of a ridge, it’s pretty smooth, Samuelson said, but when it goes down the other side it gets choppy, making a balloon flight much like trying to navigate the rapids.
Luckily, it didn’t put the balloon into a spin, he said, and the pilots tried to bring the balloon down a bit gently when they were hit by a burst of downward moving air.
All of a sudden, the air temperature dropped 20 to 30 degrees and the balloon began to plunge at a speed 1,000 feet a minute, faster than a skydiver falling with an open parachute, Samuelson said.
At about 500 feet above the cliffs, they were able to arrest their descent and stabilize the balloon by using double burners to heat the air in the envelope.
“It felt like we were falling through a hole,” Samuelson said. “It probably only lasted for 10 seconds — until we started climbing again at 1,000 feet a minute.”
They’d anticipated that might happen, he noted.
Another thing the two hadn’t expected was much more pleasant – the view from above.
Though they’d spent a fair amount of time studying satellite images of the canyon on Google Earth, there was much they saw that they never would have seen on satellite or from the ground.
For starters, the sheer size of the canyon, which Samuelson described as “big country, big canyons that jut out from the main canyon.”
The clouds, too, were spectacular at eye-level, particularly the caps forming at the peaks of the mountains, he said.
It was awe-inspiring for the two pilots who are now contemplating their next challenge.
Becoming a pilot
Samuelson got hooked on ballooning after attending his first Riverton Balloon Rally three years ago.
The event made him wonder how much one of those balloons cost and what a person had to do to learn to fly one.
Like used cars and other equipment, Samuelson found a wide range of costs — from $4,000 at the low end to upwards of $45,000, which he thought didn’t seem entirely out of the question.
He’d also just suffered a pretty severe cut to his hand during a construction project that left him at home recovering from surgery with time on his hands to do lots of research.
As he learned, the city of Riverton is unique in being the only municipality in the country to own two hot air balloons.
Better yet, the city also employed a veteran balloon pilot, Pat Newlin, who also taught lessons at the time, so Samuelson decided to check it out.
Flying was not a new thing for him. He’d been an avid paraglider for 15 years prior to getting married and having a family.
“Paragliding was a selfish sport,” he said. “It’s just me and the guys all by ourselves in the middle of nowhere. It’s not real safe to go out by yourself.”
He gave up paragliding for the sake of his family and personal safety and he wanted to find an activity that would also involve wife Jolene and three school-age daughters, Maggie, Abby and Emily.
A couple of months later he began taking flying lessons any by January 2019 he had his pilot’s license. He took over Newlin’s post as instructor in 2021.
Pushing the envelope
Not surprisingly, the hot air balloon community is small. So small, in fact, that Samuelson can tick of a list of his fellow pilots in the Rocky Mountains on one hand.
They’d invited a few of these other pilots to join them on the Saturday Wind River Canyon trip, but it didn’t work out with their schedules.
One thing that the pilots are always encouraging one another to do is to literally “push the envelope” and try new safe, but increasingly more daring adventures, such as flying the canyon.
While it’s great to use the hot air balloon on casual trips locally or at the numerous balloon fests throughout the country and world all year long, Samuelson said, “pushing the envelope” involves pushing the balloon to maximize all its features.
To this end, Samuelson already has quite a few feats under his belt, including the canyon trip.
To date, he’s been on a couple “long jump flights,” longer than 30 miles, and has soared at altitudes of 14,000 feet above sea level. He and his family take regular trips of anywhere from 60 to 70 hours a year – or about once a week on average.
He also gives lessons and takes passengers for rides for a fee throughout the season and during the annual balloon festival. Samuelson and Jones had talked to some balloonists from the late 1970s and 1980s about their plans for the canyon trip.
The balloonists, who had flown over the top of Yellowstone National Park at 18,000 feet, told Samuel and Jones that they were indeed the first in their knowledge to thread the canyon and called to congratulate them on their feat.
“Balloonists are always proud of someone doing something safe and adventurous,” Samuelson said.
Samuelson said he plans to make the trip again and added he would not do a whole lot of things differently, flying the canyon about the same way.
He’s got other flights planned, as well, including a flight from Dubois to Riverton, which is a 75-mile flight and would be his longest to date. He would like to jump the Wind Rivers Mountains as well as attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Schedule permitting, he’ll likely hit the international balloon rally in Canada this summer and also has his eye on trips to festivals in Mexico, Italy, France, Vietnam and Taiwan.
As Samuelson noted, the sky’s the limit.