High winds prevail in Balloon Rodeo | SteamboatToday.com

High winds prevail in Balloon Rodeo

Windy weather deflated high hopes for the Balloon Rodeo on Saturday morning.

Organizers canceled the launch of 43 hot air balloons because strong southwesterly winds made it too dangerous, but participants crossed their fingers for better weather today.

In the past 23 years, rarely have both days been canceled, said Riley Polumbus, spokeswoman for the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association.

Starting at about 6 a.m. Saturday, several thousand people gathered on the hay fields by the Meadows parking lot to watch the annual event. While spectators lounged on lawn chairs and ate doughnuts, rows of large baskets sat ready for their balloons to be inflated. But at about 7:30 a.m., organizers read aloud the gloomy weather forecast: upper southwesterly winds at 20 mph and rain showers west of Hayden moving toward Steamboat.

To illustrate, the announcer released a small blue test balloon into the air, and the wind immediately swept the balloon at a sharp angle toward Steamboat.

Launch directors and balloon pilots regretted the cancellation but said it was necessary for safety. The hazard lay more in the balloon landing than in the balloon flight. Because pilots cannot control the lateral movement of the balloons, only the up and down movements, organizers feared the wind would blow the balloons over Steamboat, where they could collide with buildings when landing.

“With a couple of people standing in it, the basket weighs about 1,000 pounds. If that’s traveling at 5 to 10 mph and it crashes into a house, it would not be pretty,” launch director Joe Pete LoRusso said. “Although it’s not too windy down here for us, at 400 feet, it’s blowing pretty good, and you’re not going to be able to land in a safe manner.”

If the wind had been blowing away from town, the balloons probably would have flown, he said. In fact, in flat places such as deserts or Kansas, balloons fly with 20-mph winds and then drag 50 to 200 yards on sand or cornfields to stop, he said.

Waiting for the weather to improve wasn’t an option, however, because it’s unsafe to balloon past about 10 a.m. The ideal time for flying is the early morning when the sun hits the earth at a glancing angle. Later in the day, the sun’s rays strike more directly, which heats up the ground and creates thermal activity on the surface.

“It’s like flying on boiling water. It makes the landing very bumpy,” LoRusso said.

In the end, the wind made it too dangerous for the pilots, the people on the ground and the balloons themselves, which cost $25,000 to $60,000, balloon-meister Marty Pearlman said.

“It’s one thing to be on the ground wishing you were up in a balloon and another thing altogether to be up in a balloon wishing you were on the ground,” Pearlman said.

Despite the cancellation, several pilots inflated their balloons anyway and kept them tethered to the ground. Hot waves of air rippled from hissing burners as pilots filled the balloons. Children clambered onto the baskets and watched in awe as the grand figures rose before them and took shape.

The green Emerald City balloon, the Big Top circus balloon and the “Let’s Quack” duck balloon bobbed merrily above the ground. The balloons strained on their tethers as though eager to frolic freely in the air.

“The duck loves to fly. You can see that when we’re trying to pack him up because he doesn’t want to go back in the bag,” Kelly Baldwin said. She and her husband came from Bosque Farms, N.M., to participate in the event.

The duck was not the only one disappointed.

Eight-year-old Ali Gratz and 6-year-old Emily Gratz, visiting from Minnesota, were sad it was canceled, but watching Ducky inflate compensated a little.

“I like the duck balloon,” Ali said.

“It’s cool!” Emily chimed in.

The pilots are eager to return today for another chance to get into the skies.

“When you’re hanging in the sky, it’s so serene and quiet,” pilot Eugene Clewley said. “You don’t feel any wind because you’re on the wind. There’s nothing you can say that it’s like because it’s so different.”

–To reach Kristin Bjornsen, call 879-1502

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