Ready for liftoff: 39th annual Balloon Rodeo takes flight this weekend
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Hot air balloons have a Hollywood knack for attracting curious stares.
As longtime pilot Tim Taylor readied his American flag-patterned balloon for flight in the parking lot of the Steamboat Christian Center ahead of Steamboat Springs’ 39th annual Hot Air Balloon Rodeo, people gradually emerged from nearby homes wearing bathrobes and sipping from steaming mugs while they watched the spectacle.
“This just made my whole day,” one woman said.
This marks the second year the Steamboat Pilot & Today is putting on the balloon festival. While it comes with some restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Publisher Logan Molen said it was important to keep the event going in whatever capacity possible as a way to quite literally lift the community’s spirits.
There is no public access to the launch site at Bald Eagle Lake, but people may still watch the balloons from vantage points around Steamboat.
Saturday, Aug. 29 and Sunday, Aug. 30 at Bald Eagle Lake
- 7 a.m. Sunrise Patrol – Wave 1 balloon launch
- 7:30 a.m. Wave 2 balloon launch
- 8 a.m. Wave 3 balloon launch
*Weather permitting, balloons will be in the air through midmorning
For the 23 pilots participating this year, it is one of the few chances they get amid the pandemic to convene with fellow enthusiasts and longtime friends in a balloon festival. Officials rescheduled the 49th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, the largest event of its kind, until next year due to health concerns.
While a hot air balloon appears graceful in the sky, on the ground it is a cumbersome behemoth. More than other forms of flight, getting it in the air is a collective effort, requiring a solid team of muscle, usually four people at least, to launch, fly and recover the balloon.
All of the heavy lifting and strenuous steering helps to explain why Taylor’s arms look more like they belong to an Olympic gymnast than a pilot.
Taylor usually has a crew of about 10, but some could not make it to this year’s festival. Instead, he recruited the help of newspaper staff, including this correspondent, and a few of the onlookers to make his Thursday flight.
In previous years, it was not unusual for pilots low on crew members to recruit festivalgoers in exchange for a balloon ride.
Taylor directed his ragtag team as they unrolled a protective tarp, also in the pattern of an American flag, then dragged out the balloon. To inflate it, he used two industrial-grade fans to blow air as two people held open the bottom of the aircraft. He then used the basket’s two burners capable of igniting more than 30 million British thermal units of propane per hour — the equivalent of about 1,200 gas grills — to finish the job.
“These would heat your hot tub pretty quick,” Taylor said of the burners.
Then it was time to fly. The pilot’s prowess in the air was quickly evident after he cleared a fence within inches, then hovered just above the heads of some construction workers before ascending on a southerly wind channel.
Hot air balloon pilots must get certified with the Federal Aviation Administration, and to carry passengers they need a commercial license, just like fixed-wing pilots. As he flew, Taylor used an application on an electronic tablet to track wind speeds, altitude and other metrics. He made slight adjustments to the vents or added heat through the burners to maneuver winds. He never stopped smiling.
A brief history of hot air ballooning
Steamboat’s balloon rodeo dates back to the ’80s, thanks to a group of local balloon enthusiasts and pilots, namely René Lipps, Mike Bauman and Joe August. The event got its name because during the first year, some cowboys got involved to make a competition for the pilots, according to August. They placed a sawhorse with horns in a field, which the pilots tried to lasso as they fly by.
“That was the first official balloon rodeo,” August said.
Historically, hot air ballooning has served a variety of purposes, from vessels of romance to instruments of war. Its invention was more a result of human curiosity than anything.
Two Frenchmen, the Montgolfier brothers, got the idea for the world’s first hot air balloon after watching embers rise from a fire, according to the National Balloon Museum. They wondered how humans could harness such heat to fly without burning up in the process.
Not wanting to risk their own lives, the brothers chose a duck, a rooster and a sheep named Montauciel — meaning “climb to the sky” — as the first passengers of a hot air balloon flight. In September of 1873, King Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoinette and 130,000 French citizens showed up to watch the world’s first hot air balloon flight. The aircraft rose about 1,500 feet and traveled several miles before the animals returned safely to the ground in some woods.
When the first humans took to the skies in one of the Montgolfier’s balloons a couple months later, they reportedly scared a group of farmers who thought the contraption was a demon descending from the heavens. The pilots had a serendipitous supply of Champagne they shared with the farmers to calm their fears, according to the National Balloon Museum. While the interaction cannot be confirmed, toasting Champagne after a successful flight continues to be a tradition in the ballooning community.
After the maiden voyage, ballooning became a stage for human ingenuity, for better and for worse.
Early pilots craving fame set their sights on long-distance flights. Crossing the English Channel was one of the steps in this venture. In 1785, Francois Pilatrê de Rozier, one of the passengers from the first balloon flight, attempted to cross the channel using an experimental, volatile mixture of highly flammable hydrogen and hot air.
In an outcome tragically reminiscent of Icarus’ fabled flight to the sun, the balloon exploded 30 minutes after launch, killing Rozier and another passenger.
Many pilots still seek to stake their name on some sort of record. They recount their adventures with pride and enthusiasm. Joe August talked about his holding the distance record in Steamboat for his 80-mile voyage over Mount Werner. He landed on a frozen Alpine lake, another feat most pilots cannot boast.
Today, hot air ballooning has become more of a romantic enterprise, a gem of the past akin to drive-in theaters or horseback rides on the beach. Lovers shell out hundreds of dollars to impress their partners with an hourlong excursion and, for the serious suitors, an aerial picnic.
There is something aphrodisiac about hot air ballooning. One of the pilots at this year’s festival, Don Dougherty, proposed during a balloon ride in Vermont. Tim Taylor got married to his wife, Darren, on his first flight and loved it so much he bought the balloon.
“I haven’t gotten him out of one since,” Darren said of her husband.
In his 32 years of flying, Taylor said he has never failed to kiss his wife before liftoff.
The logistics of hot air ballooning requires early launches before the temperatures get too warm. Calm, mostly clear mornings are ideal, and forecasts for the weekend are looking favorable for these conditions.
- No public access to launch site at Bald Eagle Lake.
- Pilot, crew, sponsors and event staff must complete a health screening and wear face coverings.
- Handwash stations will be available at the launch site.
- Those who have COVID-19 or are waiting for test results should not attend the event. The same goes for people who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, such as cough, fever, or shortness of breath.
As August explained, cold air builds overnight on the mountainsides. When the sun rises and heats the air, it travels down toward the valley floor. Pilots use these channels of wind to navigate their balloons. The channels vary in thickness and direction, August said, so a pilot mostly has to feel out the winds and adjust their altitude or direction accordingly.
Fortunately for pilots in Steamboat, there usually is a layer of wind about 800 feet above the ground traveling from the Flat Tops Wilderness Area that takes pilots toward Steamboat, August said.
When the air gets too warm, the channels rise back up the mountains, August said, which is when conditions become too dangerous for flying.
Tim Taylor is one of just 25 pilots in the world certified to fly in darkness, and he reportedly has the record for the earliest balloon flight. This weekend, he is leading the dawn patrol flights on Saturday and Sunday, weather permitting. He described watching sunrise from his balloon as a religious experience that offers at least a taste of heaven.
Hot air ballooning, while not the most practical form of flight, continues to enchant pilots and passengers alike. Floating over the world below, at the whim of the winds, swells a feeling of wonder as profound and extraordinary as the forces keeping the basket afloat.
There is something ineffably beautiful about how the sport shows the pilot’s subservience to the elements that humankind has spent millennia trying to conquer. Ballooning is about obedience, patience and finesse. It also requires putting one’s faith in others.
This last component is something Taylor discussed after he landed the balloon, his forehead gleaming with sweat. Hot air ballooning has restorative potential, he said, much like how people use horse riding as therapy.
Taylor remembers a balloon festival in Reno where he met a veteran who was so traumatized after serving in Iraq that he never spoke. Taylor recruited the veteran on his balloon crew. Being on a team, executing orders and depending on others gave him a sense of belonging, Taylor said of the veteran.
The next day, the veteran came to Taylor in tears.
“For the first time in two years, he was at peace,” Taylor said.
The pilot took the veteran to more balloon festivals and watched as he gradually warmed up to the world. Taylor likes to think those experiences helped the veteran to rehabilitate back into society. He now has a wife and a steady job.
“He’s happy again,” Taylor said.
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