By Shari Valenta
Mary Ann Hawkins was focused on her landing, but she miscalculated her altitude. Everything but the basket went over the tree; all of a sudden, the hot air balloon came to a full stop. She had to work quickly. She could go downwind, but decided against it because of power lines.
“Go this way,” Dave Hawkins nervously suggested to his wife. “No, wait a minute; add more air.”
“I’m busy!” she replied.
The air was thick with tension as their basket continued to thunk against the tree. Then, he had an idea. He grabbed the tree and suddenly the branches moved them upwind. Freed, the basket made its way successfully to the landing spot. The relieved couple laughed and hugged, as neighborhood children who had watched the impressive maneuver excitedly crowded around the craft.
The couple said that was their most challenging flight. When talking about their hot air balloon, Chameleon II, that story is always included.
The rainbow-colored envelope is an impressive 90,000 cubic feet and about eight stories tall. Mary Ann Hawkins has been ballooning since 1983, while her husband has enjoyed the sport since 1989.
The couple came all the way from Murphy, Texas, to attend the Seventh Annual Rocky Mountain Balloon Festival held at Chatfield State Park, Aug. 26-28. Special attractions included a NASA space program exhibit (featuring an Apollo spacesuit), children’s area, booths, concessions and live music. The balloonists assembled included Dewey Reinhard, from Colorado Springs, who attempted to fly a helium balloon across the Atlantic Ocean in 1977 but was forced down because of a storm.
Unfortunately, the Rocky Mountain Balloon Festival, sponsored by RE/MAX, experienced stormy weather of its own this year. Due to rain and wind, Friday and Saturday morning activities were cancelled.
Saturday’s “Lites in the Nite Balloon Illum,” where hot air balloons are inflated and lit up to be viewed during sunset, usually features at least 65 balloons. This year, less participated because of wind. Most of those were commercial balloons. One balloonist said that like other private owners, he didn’t want to put his balloon out in the elements, due to the chance of having to pay for repair expenses out of his own pocket.
The weather cleared up Sunday morning, and dozens of commercial and private balloons, as well as powered paragliders, made a colorful spectacle against the Rocky Mountains. Some of the most memorable balloons were the vibrant pink Energizer Bunny beating a drum, the oddly shaped ALPO dog food can, and, of course, Tony the Tiger’s prominent, orange striped head.
To attend the balloon festival, you have to be an early bird. The proceedings start at 6:00 a.m., when the air is the most stable and usually the calmest. The night before, participants gather needed equipment and make sure radios work, so the ground crew can find the balloon.
“The hardest part is finding the crew,” said Mary Ann Hawkins. “In addition to the pilot, we need at least four people to help us.”
A balloonist has little control of how fast or where the craft goes. It basically goes where the wind takes it. Using knobs much like a gas grill controls vertical altitude. Increasing the amount of flame with the propane burner heats the air, causing the balloon to rise. It’s all based on the scientific principle that warm air rises in cooler air.
To become a balloon pilot, the Federal Aviation Administration must first license you; this takes a written and oral exam, a certain amount of hours in a balloon and a test flight. During the test flight, pilots are required to perform specific maneuvers, some of which can be difficult.
“You have to do what’s called a terminal descent, which I don’t really like. It’s a balloon drop,” explained Hawkins. “You go up to 2,000 or 3,000 feet, then stop, and let it cool naturally. As it comes down, it rotates and the fabric flaps; it’s very unnerving. About 700 or 800 feet per minute is about as fast as it falls. When you reach the altitude you want, you hit the burner and level it off. It’s kind of like when you learn to fly; you have to learn to stall the plane and then come out of the stall.”
Hawkins said that the balloon community is small and tight, and has a reputation of being helpful if something goes wrong.
“If you’re in a balloon and you’re having trouble either in the air or on the ground, everyone drops what they’re doing to go help—even if they don’t like each other,” she laughed. “Now, they may talk about you behind your back later!”
She said that one of the most difficult parts of ballooning is naming your vessel and coming up with the colors and design. The Hawkins disagreed about many names before coming up with theirs.
“It took us a whole trip down to Houston just to name ours,” she noted.
For more information about the Rocky Mountain Balloon Festival, visit [http://www.rockymountainballoonfestival.com].