It’s the 21st Annual Balloon Festival in Harrison, AR. Every year pilots come to paricipate in 3 days of events, along with an evening of optional tether rides and a balloon glow on Saturday night. Last year was my first year to crew, and I was absolutely hooked! Nothing compares to flying and I enjoy the comradarie of the chase crew. So now that I’ve tried to convince you of the merits of ballooning let me tell you about this three day event.
First of all it’s weather dependent. If the weather is bad or the wind is to high it’s not safe so no flying. That’s just something to expect if you’re going to one of these Balloon Festivals.
Everyone arrived at the field on Friday afternoon around 5:15. It was a beautiful day but the wind was a little too high in the upper thermals so for safety no flying. We did stand the balloons up so the crowd that was gathered could see a pretty sight that evening. It worked out really well for my team since they had recently gotten their envelop back from an annual inspection and it was a tangled mess. We spent a significant amount of time sorting out lines and untwisting fabric to get it all layed out nicely to even be able to put it up. If that had been the next morning with a race we would’ve been in a pickle.
This year I was paired with a new pilot and they were a fun lot. I have to say all the ones I’ve met so far are great folks. Although a trailer named the Balloon Saloon is pretty awesome. It had a bar with a beer tap and a couple of coolers loaded down. They make a FINE margarita! Friday night is topped off with a pilot and crew dinner at one of the local residents home, which overlooks the Ozark Mountains. It’s a beautiful view and an enjoyable time for everyone to hangout – either get to know one another or catch-up from the previous year.
Did I mention ballooning starts EEEEARRRLLLLY!!!! I’m not a morning person so this is a divine effort, and I love ballooning so I drag myself out. I arrive at the hotel where everyone is gathering for the pilots meeting….it was raining on the way over. That’s not a good sign. Hung out at the hotel for about an hour gabbing with other crew members and pilots but the morning flight was out of the question due to the weather conditions. No biggie I was off to have donuts with my sister and take a nap!
The balloon glow was a go thanks to the weather clearing up, so off to the soccer complex I went to get set up for tether rides. I know folks enjoy them and the kids are lots of fun, but it’s some serious work too. We had a little one that was down in the bottom of the basket with a cute little hat on – at first I wasn’t sure what was going on because it was dark. Kids are funny! Every year this event grows, so I can only imagine how big it will be in another 10 years.
We started the glow off with a wedding in the Arkansas balloon. I think that’s a first, but I could be wrong this event has been going on for 21 years. One thing that hasn’t happened in all the 21 years has been someone capturing the key off the pole that’s set up in the field across from the First Baptist Church. It’s got a hefty paycheck for anyone that does get. There have been a few pilots that have gotten close in the past. The geography of the where the pole is located and the location of Crooked Creek makes for some interesting thermals where the pole is located.
Fortunately when we finished all the tether rides the balloon saloon was open for business. Margarita time!
This is the morning I dread because I’m sore as hell from the tethering the day before. I had to drag myself out of bed and straight into a hot shower. Once I had the return of some muscle movement I made my way back to the hotel for the pilot meeting and joined up with the rest of the crew. It’s early but the feeling of community and the excitment that a race is going happen gets the blood pumping. Rules are given, weather conditions discussed and then off we went to find the best spot to put up the balloon. The Ozarks includes lots of trees and hills so finding a flat spot minus cows can be a challenge sometimes….oh and you have to be at least 2 miles as the crow flies from the pole. There is a 45 minute window to take off and by the time we found a hayfield along with a willing landowner we were within the time frame. Things start happening fast – get all equipment out and connect and start filling the envelop up with air – ready set go!
My fellow crew member had never flow,n so I was excited that she was going to have the opportunity. Really there is nothing like it. It is peaceful and exhilirating all at the same time. You can see from a perspective that gives you the ‘big picture’ view that we don’t normally get to see or experience. The first time I flew I was nervous and thrilled all at the same time then it just became awe. I’m still in awe – not sure that will ever change.
No one came close to the pole the geography got the best of all the pilots, but there are some other ways to get points and win.
The chase crew is on point to keep track of the pilot and balloon and be ready to collect them from wherever they land. I get to discover all kinds of new places when I’m part of the chase crew. We found our pilot between a house and some big freaking trees. The homeowner was helping hold down the basket and when we arrived he headed into the house. Guess he was done with all the excitement.
Once we were packed up it was back to the hotel to celebrate with champagne and the balloonist prayer. I ❤ ballooning and all the good natured fun. There is some work involved but the reward is well worth it.