Two weekends of watching the weather, learning about hot air balloons, and making new friends led to a once-in-a-lifetime ride.
By Hugh Connolly, F255857
One Thursday in October, we pointed the motorhome toward Laughlin, Nevada. I had convinced my ever-accommodating wife, Julie, to spend a day (two nights) there to satisfy my curiosity about the place I had heard so much about. Twenty-five years ago I had been to Bullhead City, across the river in Arizona. I wanted to see what had become of the area now known for its casinos and outdoor recreation.
We stopped at the Bullhead Chamber of Commerce and picked up a copy of the Laughlin “Entertainer,” a brochure published by the area’s casino resorts. The big event of the week was RiverFlight, a hot air balloon show scheduled for the next morning. We checked our calendar, which had nothing on it, headed back to the RV park, and signed up for the weekend.
The next morning, Friday, we awoke at 5:22 a.m. (digital clock), ate a bowl of cereal, fed the cat, dressed, and headed off to find the balloon show area. We wanted to arrive early enough to get front-row seats and see how the balloons were set up. When we left the motorhome it was still too dark to see what the weather was like, but it was dry and there was no wind.
As we drove through the desert past the casinos, we saw two people with red-tipped flashlights directing a trickle of cars and trucks to a parking area. As it turned out, 23 balloonists had shown up, and maybe twice that many spectators. As dawn slowly arrived, we could see rain clouds in the hills to the south. A breeze was building also.
The balloonists were in a meeting. The organizers had access to weather information from the nearby airport, and they also had released six or seven black helium-filled party-size balloons that they referred to as “eyeballs.” We learned that these little balloons reveal the presence of air currents.
Before long it started to drizzle, and some of the balloonists began leaving. Ten minutes later, even though the rain had stopped, the organizers decided that the weather would not improve until later in the day. The event was delayed until the next morning. Although we were disappointed, the balloonists seemed encouraged. Julie and I were determined to stick around and see the balloons. We had a lazy, hang-around day, highlighted by dinner at the Elks Lodge in Bullhead City.
A little persistence
On Saturday, we were up early again, but only the cat was really in the mood “” for food, of course. Peering out at the darkness, we couldn’t tell if clouds hung overhead. With the help of the casino lights, I could see that the nearby mesquite tree limbs were still. We had no reason to climb back into bed.
When we arrived at the show area, some clouds loomed over the field, but there were many more people, much more activity, and considerably more balloons than the day before. The organizer told the group that additional weather information was needed before they could begin. We also found out that this wasn’t just a balloon show, but a contest.
The object for the balloonists was to take off from the field and fly to the south where they would have room to set down on relatively flat, easily accessible land. Somewhere along that route, a big red “X” would be set out on the ground that the balloonists would maneuver toward. They would then drop a weighted, labeled ribbon as close to the target as possible. The closest ribbon would be the winner.
While we all were waiting, the organizer announced that the licensed commercial balloon pilots could go over to the large tents that had sprouted up and work out deals with anyone who wanted to pay for a ride. The going rate, we heard, was approximately $100 per person “” well out of our range. He also mentioned that anyone interested in volunteering for the event could sign up there, too. Julie and I looked at each other and both agreed with a “Why not?” Before we could move, a man standing near us said, “You want to help us?”
The adventure begins
The young man, John Smatana, introduced us to his fiancée, Caroline; his older brother, Bernard, the owner and pilot of the balloon; and Bernard’s assistant, Bob, who was in charge of the chase part of operation “” following and locating the balloon for recovery. All of them were from Albuquerque, New Mexico, home of the famed Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Although he obviously had normal preflight jitters, Bernard seemed glad to have our help. Julie and I were impressed just to be asked, and to be accepted by the others so quickly. Bernard made it clear that we were not going to be asked to do any heavy lifting.
Meanwhile the breeze from the south continued and the organizers decided to change plans. Each crew was to load up its gear and head south to find its own launch spot. The leader pointed out restrictions in selecting a launch site, such as not using someone’s front lawn, and said the “X” target would remain at the original event site. Bernard, John, and Bob hopped in the truck while Julie and I rode in the comfort of Caroline’s sedan.
Bernard chose his second stop as our launch site. Setup went quickly, but wasn’t rushed. One other balloon crew already was on hand when we arrived, and by the time we launched, five were nearby.
Bernard’s balloon was a peppy white-and-blue craft he called “High Maintenance.” Julie and I helped roll out a tarp, then the balloon. There was one hitch: A sharp piece of tree debris cut a hole in the balloon and Bernard had to patch it, doing part of the repair from inside the balloon. It was only a delay, not an end, fortunately. Bernard chose John to ride with him, so Bob, Caroline, Julie, and I became the chase group. It was our job to follow and locate the balloon when it landed.
As our balloon lifted off, with six or seven balloons in various stages of lift all around, I must admit I had never seen anything like it. I would have loved to stay there and watch awhile longer, but we had to pack the tarp and then make a mad dash back to the target area.
As we pulled into the event area, Bernard was coming in to make his pass. It looked like he had a great run going. All of a sudden he threw out the ribbon as the balloon went up and off to the far side of the target. We later learned that there had been a sudden change in wind direction. The judges started measuring as we tore off to chase Bernard and John.
By then the balloon had disappeared over a hill. Using cell phones, Bernard and Bob directed us to a parking lot where Bernard was waiting for us. It was much easier to load the balloon than to unload it and set it up.
Back at the event site, we learned that Bernard had come in third place. He still had a chance to win on Sunday, and he asked us to crew for him again. We agreed.
On Sunday, our alarm went off at 5:22 a.m. We both had heard it rain earlier, and I could see the mesquite tree moving slightly. We dressed, chucked some food at the cat, and were off.
At the launch site, the wind was stronger than the day before, and we learned that the event had been cancelled. I looked for Bernard and the gang but was unable to find their truck. When I met Julie at our car, she insisted that I take another look. I trudged off to make my point, only to find Bernard and Bob, who had just arrived. Bernard said he had figured the event was off, but he had come over to tell us thanks and good-bye.
He mentioned that he was going to fly in an event the following weekend: the Metris Thunderbird Balloon Classic, to be held at a complex north of Scottsdale. Julie pointed out that we would be staying in nearby Mesa, Arizona, and would come over and watch him fly. He asked if we would be part of his crew. He said he’d get us passes, and if the weather was good, give us a ride in his balloon. We consulted our calendar, agreed, and exchanged phone numbers to confirm plans later in the week. Julie noted that we had our first job on the road “” as members of a hot air balloon crew.
The only scheduled event for Friday was the “night glow” that evening. That day we met Bernard at a prearranged location, where he introduced us to Joni, his fiancee, and Beckie, his sister. They were to be the heart of the crew this time. Then we followed them over to the event area called WestWorld of Scottsdale.
Julie and I were expecting the same size turnout we had encountered the previous weekend, but when we arrived, we quickly thought otherwise. WestWorld is actually a very big, fancy, high-end polo ground. The huge playing area “” where the balloons took off “” was surrounded with tents, exhibitors, vendors, private sponsor pavilions, and more. With our crew badges and auto pass we were allowed in for free. We followed Bernard to the pilot/crew tent, which was about the size of a large cafeteria. We enjoyed an authentic Mexican dinner and dessert. The problem, once again, was the weather. Rain was threatening and a breeze had come up. The night glow eventually was cancelled, but high hopes remained for the next morning.
On Saturday, we awoke at 5:15 a.m. (reset the digital alarm). We had heard rain during the night, but it had stopped. After a hasty breakfast, we fed the cat, and were off to the balloons.
When we arrived, a “dawn patrol” “” a group of four or five balloons “” was taking off, which was a beautiful, magical sight in the dark. But the cloud ceiling was low and rain was threatening, so the organizers scrubbed the rest of the day’s ballooning activities. Julie and I stuck around to watch some skydivers in the light rain, but we left about 9:30 a.m. By late afternoon, the rain had quit, the clouds parted to some extent, and “” most importantly “” the wind had died. So, we headed back to WestWorld for dinner and the night glow.
A beautiful sight
After dinner, Bernard pulled out his radio-controlled hot air balloons. These are smaller balloons “” approximately a quarter of the size of a regular balloon “” and Bernard makes and sells these for a living. He had a pretty good crowd gathered around him as the sun set.
The regular hot air balloons, especially the larger “special-shaped” ones, were being laid out in preparation for the night glow, so we walked over to join the gathering crowd. As one balloon filled, it became a huge birthday cake, candles and all. Another took on the form of a giant green dragon. Wells Fargo Bank had two balloons “” one shaped like a stagecoach; the other, a piggy bank. The Famous Footwear balloon became a giant tennis shoe. Other balloons were shaped like Tony the Tiger and a large Bacardi drink. Regular-shaped balloons advertised various other products. It was just beautiful. Julie and I wound up on the side of the hill, watching the show. A bit of a drizzle fell and some of the balloons dropped out, but the big ones stayed the course. The evening could only be described as romantic.
Up, up, and away
When we awoke at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, we could tell it was going to be a fly day. By 5:22 (digital car clock) we were on our way. We found the truck, along with Beckie and Joni, at their spot on the field. The weather was dry, with minimal air movement and a 3,000-foot ceiling. Bernard returned from the pilots’ meeting all smiles. He said that all three waves “” nearly 130 balloons “” were going to fly. He walked back with a woman from the United Dairymen’s Association “” his sponsor “” and her daughter, along with a potential remote-controlled balloon customer named Ed.
Bernard was just about ready to light the burner when he announced that the woman, her daughter, Julie, and I would be the passengers on this flight. I humbly declined, noting that the balloon has a four-person basket. He removed one of the propane canisters and explained that the reduced weight would make it possible for five to fly. He added that he already had filed a passenger list at the pilots’ meeting and that we had to abide by the list.
To me, the announcement was a three-pronged blessing. First, I got to go; second, there was no way to back out; and third, I didn’t have time to worry about it beforehand. I recall the smile on Julie’s face; it was excitement personified. As for me, my mouth went dry, but I didn’t dare drink anything. Who knew when we’d see a bathroom again? As the balloon filled and the basket came upright we climbed in, and Beckie took photos. And, just like that, we were off.
I saw the ground drop away, heard the swish of the burners, and held on for dear life. I couldn’t speak. I realized it was Julie who was making “look at this” and “look at that” remarks. Then I noticed the other balloons all around us and I began to breathe easier, amazed by the beauty of being among so many balloons. I recall a multitude of colors in a moving flock; the stillness when the burner stopped; and the absence of wind, since we moved with the air. It was like being in slow motion. Phoenix spread out below us, and other balloons were all around, filling up and lifting off. Everything was magical.
After spending 10 minutes trying to turn the balloon using side vents, Bernard suggested that we switch spots, so the sponsor’s rep and her daughter might see more than the mountains to the north. Julie later admitted thinking, “Move? I don’t think so. My hands are welded to the basket.” When we did move, I discovered that the bottom of the basket was not rigid, but spongy. But still, it held us all.
After about an hour (which seemed like a spectacular 20 minutes), we noticed that we were pretty low. Someone asked whether we were going to land. What they really meant to ask was, “Bernard, are you watching what is happening?” “Are we going to crash?” and “I’d like to point out that we are falling out of the sky.” Breathlessly, we awaited a response from our pilot. All he said was, “Maybe.” It turned out that he was looking for a place to set down near the road so he could change passengers. The touchdown was smooth, as the basket whacked only one creosote bush. He held the balloon there while Beckie, in the chase truck, found us.
Just like that, our flight was over. Before I was out of the basket, I was ready to go again “” and so was Julie. Now the chase team was composed of Beckie, the sponsor’s rep, the rep’s daughter, Julie, and me.
After that flight, it was time for Bernard and Beckie to take Joni to the airport. Julie asked them to stop by our motorhome on their way back. They accepted, and we had a nice chili supper. I showed Bernard around the coach, which was fun, considering all he had taught us about ballooning during the previous two weekends.