Put everything away...get on the radio...we're going down! Hot air balloon pilot and Birmingham, Michigan businessman Scott Lorenz issued those commands as he and his two crew members swayed and tilted dangerously close to a mountainside near the Great Wall of China last October.
Unexpected winds were so perilous that Lorenz's only option was to let the air out of his balloon and fall 200 feet to the ground...hard. Real hard.
Upon touchdown, the three were thrown from the basket, glasses flying off their faces, their bodies hurling and rolling amid boulders and brush. They survived. "God had his hand on us the whole time," says one of the survivors today. "We're lucky we didn't get killed," he adds.
Lorenz looks back on the incredible incident and says that except for watching his two children being born, the emergency landing was the most profound experience in his life. Lorenz, president of Westwind Consulting, a public relations and marketing firm based in Birmingham, had never expected to perform an emergency landing during his most highly anticipated trip. After all, the 40-year-old balloonist had been a pilot for 14 years. And he's never really had anything dangerous happen to him.
Most excursions are uneventful, he says. "We've even had some yawner trips." Tedious or precarious, ballooning is almost always exhilarating and that's the main reason Lorenz became a balloonist. That was also the attraction for two of Lorenz's Michigan friends, who agreed to crew for the journey over the Great Wall of China. "When Scott asked me to go with him I said, sure, because I knew it would be fun and unusual and I had the wherewithal to do it," says 36-year-old crew member Anmar Sarafa of Bloomfield Hills. Sarafa is president of Zaske, Sarafa & Associates, a money management firm in Birmingham. So he and another friend, Mike Franchi, a Plymouth resident and co-owner of Mama LaRosa Foods in Taylor, joined Lorenz in early October for a 10-day vacation to China.Over the course of the trip, the adventurous trio went up several times in the rainbow-colored balloon co-owned by Lorenz, and Paul and Marion Szilagyi of Boulder, Colorado. They flew over Chinese cornfields, mountains, small farming communities and curious village visitors.
During one ride, they landed in a small village and were an immediate magnet to dozens of children who were not only intrigued by the colorful balloon, but also wanted to fill their hands with the candy treats that the men brought along in honor of their own Halloween traditions.
The 16-balloon gathering, sponsored by the Aero Sports Federation of China, featured balloonists and media from all over the world. Tom Bergeon of Mason, Michigan was the only other US pilot joining balloonists from Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Korea and ten Chinese balloonists.
The federation provided an interpreter, a chase crew and truck, lodging, maps, food and more. All had come to admire from a birds-eye view the 4,164-mile-long Great Wall at about 4,500' MSL.
On the day of the Great Wall flight, all was calm...or so it seemed. Gorgeous blue skies beckoned the 16 eager balloonists. Kidding each other as they prepared for flight, one crew member joshed: "What are the chances of crashing and burning, Scott?" "Not too much," Lorenz said with a smile. "Mountains? No problem. Power lines? No problem," he quipped. "It really looked good. There was a high pressure system over us at the time, and winds were about 10 knots at the surface," Lorenz recalls. "Our flight plan was to fly over the wall, and take the first available and accessible landing spot," he adds.
But after several minutes in flight and crossing the Great Wall at two points, Lorenz attempted to land near a small village in a valley. "As I descended the winds really picked up; I realized that not only was the landing impossible, but the peak staring us in the face required me to hit the burner and Fire Two in order to clear it . We missed the top of that peak by 10 feet," says Lorenz. Dangerous wind shears had developed in the mountainous areas and Lorenz was in the middle of it. As their American flag-draped basked drifted toward another peak, the former Boy Scout had to start thinking fast. "There was no question about it...we were in trouble," Lorenz recalls. Gusts plus downdrafts and rotors from the top of the mountain created the conditions that quickly caused the balloon to distort, seeming to rise and fall simultaneously. "I decided to rip out the top, and try to plant it on a small flat spot on the mountain top," he explains. "The balloon dropped straight down...fast, very fast."
Lorenz also shut off the pilot light so that once they landed there would be no ground fires. Looking at the mountainous configurations ahead of him, Lorenz realized there was no way he could get over the upcoming ridge. "Even if I heated, heated, heated, heated...there was no way, and, if the throat closed we'd been dead for sure," he said. "In safety seminars we're all trained for this kind of situation. I equated it to a power line emergency, if you're eye level with them, you don't fly over them. You rip out. It's better than hitting the power lines in flight. If you do hit, you can have fires and explosions. You're dead. But you at least have a chance of surviving a 100-to 200-foot hard hit on the ground," he explains.
But the three never lost their cool, even while descending swiftly to a rocky landing. "There was no time for the fear factor," says Sarafa. "Mike and I were just basically doing what Scott told us to do. It was happening so fast. You have time for a prayer and that's it," he says. "Scott was really cool, calm, working this thing. "Mike and I were ignorant and that prevented us from being scared. If we had been afraid, we would have been hurt really badly." Like a sling shot, the three flew out of the basket as it collided with the ground. Eyeglasses, shoes and equipment tumbled to thick-brush areas. "The scene was surreal. I saw the rope caught on Mike's foot and then the balloon was dragging him down the side of the mountain," says Sarafa. He then yelled down to see if he was OK. "I've been better," said Franchi.
Lorenz says he looked up and saw the balloon basket go right over this head before it drifted down through a ravine. "It went over the side of a mountain and was gone! A seven-story balloon went completely out of site!" he explains.
It was remarkable that their video camera, tape recorder and camera fell right at their feet, while other items scattered so far from the point of impact that they were never found.
A balloon pilot's flight over China's Great Wall last October turned into the great fall. "It was the most incredible flight of my life," said Scott Lorenz. "It was the best and the worst flight I have ever made all in one. And everyone has wanted to know about it.''
Lorenz, 40, of Plymouth, Mich., competed in Battle Creek in the Team U.S. Nationals Hot-Air Balloon Championship and Air Show.
When he's not flying with team captain Noah Omerod and teammate Masahiko Fujita, Lorenz talks a lot about his trip to China, his flight over the Great Wall and his emergency landing.
It is a flight that could have cost the lives of Lorenz and his two passengers. But they walked away from the accident with only minor injuries, yet vivid memories. It took years to prepare for the flight and moments for it to end.
Lorenz, president of Westwind Consulting, a public relations and marketing firm, has been flying balloons for 15 years. He has participated in all the Battle Creek events and has flown all over the United States and in Japan, Spain, France and Canada. He first flew in China about 1988 and befriended Chinese flyers who came here a few years ago.
When a race was organized in October in China, Lorenz was invited. He asked Tom Bergeon of Mason to join him, and the two Americans flew with teams from Germany, Switzerland, Korea, Sweden and 10 pilots from China. The competition was secondary for Lorenz. "The main reason I went over was the flight over the Great Wall,'' he said.
Bergeon, who owns a laminated wood business and often flies balloons for Re/MAX, decided to scrap plans for a trip to the balloon festival in Albuquerque and instead he and his wife packed for China. Like Lorenz, Bergeon said the high point of the trip was the flight over the Great Wall.
The wall, the largest building construction project ever done, runs 1,500 miles. It was built in 200 B.C. as a defensive system.
The pilots flew several times while in China, before the day they took their trip across the wall. Lorenz planned to hop over it the morning of Oct. 6 because he had a plane to catch later in the day for a flight to a seminar in Shanghai. The morning seemed good for flying, he said, although weather information was difficult to obtain. "Often you had to look and figure it out for yourself,'' Lorenz said.
The pilots launched from a parking lot near the Bading Entrance to the wall. Lorenz said the flight went well until the balloon crossed the wall. "It was a beautiful day with a blue sky. Flying over was a huge rush.'' But quickly, Lorenz's euphoria turned to fear. As he began to drift the balloon into a small valley, the winds picked up and began pushing the balloon at 15 to 20 knots. Because the wall is in mountains, the terrain is difficult for landing and the winds can be tricky and unpredictable, often swirling and violent.
"We were coming down and picking up speed,'' Lorenz said. A mountain loomed, and he fired the burners and lifted the balloon over -- with only 10 feet of clearance. Lorenz felt strong winds pushing on the balloon, forcing hot air out and decreasing the lift. He feared that the wind could even close the throat at the bottom of the balloon and prevent him from heating the air inside, sending the craft plummeting to the ground.
He believes he was in a rotor, caused by winds blowing off the opposite side of a mountain, causing wind shear and other violent air. Bergeon, who was flying his balloon a mile ahead with his wife, Mickey, could see that Lorenz was in trouble, but could do nothing.
Lorenz said he decided he had to land. He was 200 feet above a small plateau when he pulled the line to open the balloon and drop it to the ground. He and his two passengers -- Anmar Sarafa of Bloomfield Hills and Mike Franchi of Plymouth -- were headed for a hard landing. The crash sent the three men tumbling. The balloon bounced and then continued.
"I landed on my back and the basket is going over me,'' Lorenz said. "I pushed the basket with my hands and it was gone.'' The 90,000-cubic-foot balloon and the basket disappeared down the side of a mountain. The three men lost glasses and some blood, but no bones were broken. They suffered no serious injury.
The balloon was buried in thick brush. They reached it a step at a time, and retreived some equipment. Then they walked five hours before finding a road. It took 50 men and six days to retrieve the balloon, which had been flown only 40 hours. Lorenz received a bill for nearly $3,500 for the rescue effort; he gave them the balloon as payment.
Lorenz said flying over the Great Wall really wasn't that big a risk, but he admits he was not fully aware of the weather because of lack of information from the Chinese. "But this was a flight that was in our ability and our limits,'' he said. Lorenz is flying a new balloon, Sun Pirate II, in Battle Creek this week. He's already looking forward to his next adventure. He wants to fly over Mount Fuji in Japan this fall.
As for the Great Wall: "Once was enough. I think we got that handled."