SCOTTSBLUFF — After the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon morning competition was canceled due to high winds Monday, U.S. National Hot Air Balloon pilots and crews met at the Gering Civic Center for an evening flight.
While the pilots and crew members waited for the briefing of Monday’s target, many checked the weather forecasts to anticipate what the balloon would do in the air.
Blake Aldridge of Longview, Texas, is a navigator and spent Monday afternoon watching the wind measurements ahead of the first competition flight.
“Since it’s an afternoon flight, it’s going to change,” he said. “Here it’s hotter so the balloon is more sluggish and the winds are light and variable. That’s why balloons fly in the morning because the winds are more stable. In the afternoon, they can change.”
There is a team who sends out wind watch measurements every 15 minutes. On Monday, one of the readings had the surface wind in a right direction and the high altitude winds blowing left. Fifteen minutes later, it switched.
With the target set at the Scottsbluff soccer field, the pilots and crews headed northeast of the target in search of a launch site. After pulling off on the shoulder, they released pibals (pilot balloons) to simulate the direction of the hot air balloon as it climbs in altitude. Once the pibal was in the air, crews used sighting compasses to track the pibal's direction in relation to the target. The pibals are filled with helium.
Crew chief Tamlyn Hedemann looked through the wind data and map to determine the best place to launch.
“We only steer by elevation and wind,” Hedemann said. “There’s no steerage. They’re trying to catch the right wind lines to be able to have some steerage toward the target.”
Several pilots selected a field off County Road J and County Road 25 for Monday’s launch. After pilot Brandon Havin’s crew unrolled the envelope and prepared to inflate it, Havin with the balloon Miss Behavin was excited for competition.
“I’m looking forward to the flight,” he said. “The wind is a bit quick, but it’s nothing we can’t handle.”
The wind on the ground was around 8 mph and over 100 feet in the air, the wind was blowing at 20 mph.
“A sudden change from 20 mph to about 8 with a six-story bag of air is always a fun experience,” Havin said.
The first couple balloons up used a show arena on Wendy Williams’ property.
“It’s so amazing,” she said. “I love it.”
As she watched the balloons take off over her house with her three daughters, they enjoyed watching the baskets quickly climb in elevation to clear their house and nearby trees.
“I was like ‘Woah, that’s big,’” said Anneka Williams as the balloon envelope stood up.
As the community came out to watch the balloonists throw their baggies toward the target, Pam Pedersen liked the sense of community from the nationals.
“I think it’s good for the community, something to do. It brings people to town and lets us show off our community and this fine part of the state,” she said.
Although Monday was the first day of competition, Nathan Luehrs and his sons Carter, Miles and Graham enjoyed watching the test flights over the weekend.
“We watched from the house Saturday and Sunday, and we were just amazed at the precision and control the pilots had,” Luehrs said. “It’s really an amazing opportunity for Scottsbluff and the valley to host this.”
He said his sons were picking balloons as they watched to see whose balloon would be first.
The National Balloon Competition kicks off a week of balloon activities as the Old West Balloon Fest begins later this week. Some of the pilots are already in town and enjoyed watching the nationals.
“They just come blazing in at 5 to 10 mph., which doesn’t really sound like blazing unless you’re in a balloon,” said David Eichhorn, a balloonist from Albuquerque, New Mexico. “This is a very scenic area. You’ve got a big honking river here, which we don’t in Albuquerque. We have the Rio Grande, which is usually the Rio not-so-grand. Really, it’s a nice area here. Everybody is friendly.”
The pilots had to drop their baggies onto the target by 7:45 p.m. for the mark to count. There was only one target at the soccer fields for the Monday evening contest.