by Mitchell “Taco” Bell
So you shot down a spy balloon, huh? Here, hold my beer…
Somewhere back in 2002, I was flying from LGA to Toronto Canada on the daily shuttle in the F-100 Fokker Barbie Jet. It was a typical cold rainy and miserable winter time day in NYC with low ceilings. This leg was my takeoff from Runway 13, you know the one that takes you over the giant flying saucer state fair thingmejiggy. We rotate and hit the clouds around 300 feet so I’m hand flying in the clouds using the instruments to navigate on the different headings and altitudes ATC is issuing to us. It’s the most rewarding part of being a pilot and what I love to do.
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We are not talking, the captain is watching his instruments as he monitors my climb and replying to the controller, and the only sound is of the rain hitting the windshield. Up we go, 2,000 feet, now 3,000 feet. As we are passing through 4,000 feet, the darkness from the clouds starts to subside as it becomes lighter outside.
This is the moment you are about to hit the top of the clouds and break out into the magnificent clear blue skies. It’s my favorite part of flying, always has been since I was a kid, age 6, sitting in the cockpit of an American Airlines 727. You could feel the warmth of the sun on your face when normal people on the ground were wet under the clouds.
Well, the moment we passed into the bright blue skies, directly in front of us was an object as big around as the plane! Multi colored in a stark contrast to the blue skys behind it. Instantly, my reflexes pushed the yoke forward with my right hand as my left arm went in front of my face to deflect the debris that were about to assault my body from the collision (like that would help me, right?)
The Captain looked up at the same time and screamed a loud Shhhhhhhhhiiiiiiiittttttttttt! as he threw both arms in front of his face as well.
We hit the object at 240 knots. The jolt of my reaction to avoid death didn’t work and only succeeded in creating negative G’s in the cabin and putting the flight attendants and passengers stomachs up next to their lungs.
The plane hit a giant clump of balloons. I mean, we plow through this mass. Did you ever see the movie “Up;” yeah, that is what I’m talking about. We tore through that sucker and I’m sure we sucked a few down the engines, blew some up and freed the rest to float as singles. Some street vendor lost his giant deal of balloons where they floated up through the clouds and happen to be right where our plane path was as we punched out of the goo.
I remember the instant heavy breathing, my pulse racing from the adrenaline dump that hit my body and my brain now processing what just happened as we cleared and it was back to clear blue winter skies in front of us.
The Captain looked over at me and said, “Holy Shit I thought we were dead, I might have to go change my underwear after that!”
I replied that I would have to go after him!
The phone was dinging, and the flight attendant in the back was in shock and asking what happened.
The pilot didn’t want to admit that we tried to dodge a clump of balloons as big as the jet, I think he said we hit some wake turbulence. He did tell ATC to warn all the crews behind us to watch out for balloons as they broke out of the clouds.
To this day, I’ve lost engines, had the flight director fail in the goo flying a small light twin and once in my own plane causing the worst case of vertigo, but never have I had my senses assaulted like that with the pending death caused by hitting another object that you didn’t expect to see directly in front of you so suddenly.
Watch out little kid from “Up”, I’ll be ready next time!
So I say, destroy all the balloons that you see, they are dangerous!!! When passengers ask what is the scariest thing that has ever happened to me, well, hitting those balloons is right up there as the worst.
Semper Fi, Taco.
Mitch “Taco” Bell is a retired Marine KC-130 pilot flying for a major airline on the B-737. You can watch his Tall Tales with Taco Bell on Facebook and YouTube. His past stories can be found on The Sandgram.