whats that red line for again??
Getting balloon stuff in the press is always good but frighteners that will
put off potential guests are a bad thing.
Still I might be filming something next month that gets the entire balloon
community damning me but I'll take the cash ;-)
Winter is good time to get up, up and away from it all.
By RANDY ERICKSON Editor
When Ray and Heidi Ebert look out on a still but chilly winter's day,
chances are they're thinking one thing: "Looks like a good day for a balloon
ride." If the wind is right — meaning not much of it — they'll round up a
crew at their West Salem takeoff point, which they like to call "Geezer
Gulch International Airport," and launch their red-and-white "Lofty View"
It turns out that despite all the cold-air, winter is a great time of year
for hot-air ballooning. For one thing, balloonists don't have to get up as
early in January as they do in June for a sunrise flight. The best times of
day for ballooning come at sunrise and a couple hours before sunset, Ray
said, and a dawn takeoff in the dead of winter is 7:30 or 8 a.m. instead of
"Ballooning is all about good friends who are willing to get up at obnoxious
hours of the morning for you," Heidi said.
Also, if the ground is covered in snow, it also means a smoother balloon
ride. Different colors reflect heat differently, with an expanse of black
earth or pavement giving off more heat than ground covered in green. If the
ground is snow-covered, balloonists don't have to worry about anticipating
and adjusting for ground-related thermal variances.
With no leaves to get in the way, winter balloonists get a better view of
wildlife on the ground. And because of the colder winter air, it takes less
fuel to heat the air inside the balloon to a level where it will float.
Hot-air balloons also are more responsive in cooler air, Ray said, so it's
like driving a Corvette instead of a Chevette.
Going up in the air in the winter isn't as cold as people might think, he
said. For one thing, there's no windchill because the balloon is moving with
the wind. In addition, the balloonist is standing in a small basket next to
a couple burners that put out about 13 million BTUs each.
"If you can keep your toes warm, it'll be a nice flight," Ray said.
With all those advantages, it's not surprising that Caledonia, Minn., hosts
its annual Bluff and Valley Balloon Rally in December. The rally draws 15 to
20 balloonists every year from around the Midwest. Throughout the year,
balloonists pay a lot of attention to wind speed, and at this year's
Caledonia rally the wind was too brisk for most of the assembled pilots.
Ebert said it just takes a "whisper" of wind to get a balloon moving, so
balloonists are looking for wind speeds in the range of 6 to 8 mph. Some
balloonists might take a chance with a 10 mph wind; very few would want to
take off in a 12 mph wind like they had at the Houston County Airport for
the most recent Caledonia rally.
Ray was one of the few.
A licensed commercial pilot, Ray said he never would have taken off that
morning if he had had paying passengers. But as a commercial pilot, he has
to have an biannual review conducted by other licensed pilots, and since
there was an abundance of them at the balloon rally, he decided he'd get his
review out of the way.
Plus, he said, he didn't want all the spectators who had come out to the
rally that morning to go home too disappointed. With all the extra hands
available to hold the balloon down in preparation for takeoff, Ray decided
to go for it, giving it a hard blast of heat for a "hot" takeoff instead of
the usual relatively gentle liftoff.
"Ballooning is not an adrenaline sport, and there was a lot of adrenaline
popping there," Ray said.
Luckily, he said, "once you're up in the air, there's not too many bad
things that can happen."
Landings in high wind can be rough. In a 10-mph wind, for instance, the
basket might drag along the ground for 200 to 300 yards before coming to a
About an hour after taking off from Caledonia, though, Ray found a valley
protected from the wind where he could safely set the balloon down. In short
order, Heidi was there in their truck with trailer in tow to help pack up
The Eberts put their balloon in the air 30 to 40 times per year, roughly
evenly divided between "fun" flights and flights in which paying passengers
are carried. Those paid flights are still fun, and they help pay for a
fairly expensive hobby, but Ray said he wouldn't want to take on any more
paying customers than he gets now by word of mouth.
"As soon as it becomes a business where I have to fly, it's no longer fun,"
For a substantial majority of flights, Heidi is part of the ground crew,
giving chase in the truck. But that wasn't the original plan.
Heidi, a fourth-grade teacher at West Salem Elementary, crewed in college
for friends who had a hot-air balloon, and about 10 years ago, the Eberts
decided they'd buy a balloon so Heidi could become a pilot. Soon after they
got the balloon, though, she became pregnant and didn't want to be flying.
Rather than let the balloon sit idle, Ray, who had no ballooning experience,
decided he'd learn to fly. "If I have a $15,000 toy in my garage, I'm going
to use it," Ray said.
About four years ago, the Eberts upgraded from their first balloon to their
90,000-cubic-foot "medium sport balloon," which cost about $35,000. That
might seem expensive, but not compared with the replica of the balloon from
"The Wizard of Oz" that flew last year at the Kansas State Fair. That one
cost $75,000, and there are some more expensive yet.
Heidi has made some steps toward getting a pilot's license, but achieving
that isn't a high priority for her anymore. She kind of prefers staying on
the ground and giving chase.
"Those of us who chase think the chase is pretty fun," she said. "It's the
challenge of trying to stay ahead of the balloon and trying to predict where
the balloon is going to land."
West Salem Police Chief Dennis Abbott is one of those who thinks the chase
is fun. He has been on the ground crew of about half of Ray's 400 flights
and has an uncanny knack for it. Part of it comes from Abbott's extensive
knowledge of area roads, Ray said, while part is from his skill with a GPS
and part is from gut feeling.
"He blends technology with good old intuition," Ray said of Abbott. "For
him, the challenge is for him to be there before I get there."
The chasers getting there first is important because it's both good manners
and smart to ask a property owner for permission before setting down a
balloon on his land.
Abbott's ground crew skills aren't limited to his own back yard. Ray said
one year Abbott crewed for the winning team at the famed balloon rally in
Albuquerque, N.M., which draws about 700 balloonists every year.
Although there have been some improvements in technology since the first
hot-air balloon flights in France in the 1780s, in many ways it's still the
same. "It's the simplest of physics," Heidi said.
The early French pilots took to carrying bottles of champagne with them to
show the farmers that they were earthlings just like them, and to this day
balloonists enjoy a champagne toast with their ground crews at the end of a
"That's kind of a fun tradition to keep alive," Heidi said.
Contact Randy Erickson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 786-6812.