UP, UP, AND AWAY…

Spectators at the Big Brothers Big Sisters Hot Air Balloon Extravaganza watch the evening glow.

Spectators at the Big Brothers Big Sisters Hot Air Balloon Extravaganza watch the “evening glow.”

Amye Buckley

They fly only in the morning or evenings when the wind is calm. Weather scrapped two of the scheduled launches but conditions were near perfect for the Saturday evening launch and balloon glow and the early launch the next day during the third annual Big Brothers Big Sisters Hot Air Balloon Extravaganza, Aug. 24 – 26.

Raising community awareness of the one-on-one programs offered by the organization the event also was to alert community members about their need for volunteers and the fulfillment that comes from investing in the life of a child.

Organizers say the event drew 2,500 plus people and balloonists sponsored by local businesses came from the four-state area.

Danny Mathia, pilot of the balloon “Danny’s Mistress” traveled from Baseshor, Kan. Family ties in the area convinced him to try this festival, which is new on the balloonist circuit Mathia, however, is not. He bought his first balloon in the mid 90s after owning a series of hang gliders and powered ultralights.

“I’ve been ballooning for years,” Mathia said. “I’ve actually been an airhead my whole entire life, my grandfather was a pilot and I think I’ve got it in my blood.”

The balloon crews lined up in front of their chase vehicles and tested the wind by releasing some party-sized balloons, and watching them float away.

Then crews rolled out the balloons, some weighing more than 250 pounds, and worked to get them prepped, air-filled and upright before releasing them to the winds. Weather plays a big role in balloon flight and the wind levels during the pre-launch is especially important.

“We’re trying to hold something that is seven to 10 stories tall, down,” Mathia said. “And they’re not in their element on the ground. It’s just very, very hard to hold something that big down in high winds. It’s a gigantic sail.” Mathia, a commercially licensed balloonist, has logged well-over a thousand hours in the air. He flies as a hobby, but in a few years he would like to fly full-time, possibly when he retires. Currently he can fit himself and up to four others in the basket, but he prefers to run with fewer passengers to lower use his equipment. The more people the more heat he has to apply and the faster the balloon envelope itself will wear out. Balloonists travel to different events, showing their balloons and, during their travels, meeting up with other hobbyists and even professionals. Although he says some people make a good living off flying for now it is just an adventure for Mathia.

“Generally the only thing we know when we launch is that we’re going to land downwind,” Mathia said. “Where we don’t know and that’s the excitement of ballooning because it’s always been an adventure. We always know it will be downwind somewhere.

“That’s the neat thing about ballooning, you don’t really use ballooning to get anywhere you just kind of use ballooning to get away. It’s always enjoyable just to get up and let the winds blow you where they may.”

Sometimes they dip down and wave hello to people on the ground, skimming the tops of the trees, smelling the fresh-cut grass.

“I think all balloonists do it just because we love being in the air and there is nothing better than being in the air 1500-feet in a wide open wicker basket, because you’ve got a 360 degrees without anything obstructing their view,” Mathia said. “You don’t get that in any kind of aircraft, except for a balloon.”

Spectators gathered for the event saw a launch and other balloons fly in from another location, then an evening “glow.” Jerome Doan, junior art education major, drove back to campus to watch the event

“It’s like an invasion,” Doan said. “If there’s one you say ‘ok’ but if you see a bunch of them then you say ‘Hey, what’s going on?'”