Page AZ Balloon Regatta 2011

18 Nov

Our reason for visiting Page was to help out friends at the balloon regatta to be held over the week end. We had been fortunate enough to meet George and Aggie at a previous event here and have stayed in touch with the hope of meeting up once more to help fly their balloon Kaleidoscope.

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We arrived at the camp ground on Tuesday and began settling in, Wednesday we were joined by from friends from BC, Lawrie and Monica with their travelling companions Cherry and Dave who had also come to see the balloons. Lawrie and Monica had volunteered to crew the balloon with us in 2009. Despite the energetic pace of the job we were all up for another busy week end doing whatever we could to help get the balloon in the air.

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Unfortunately despite our early start to Friday and a blue sky above, the winds were too strong to fly, so after a breakfast get together we decided our exercise would come from a hike to the overlook of the Horseshoe Bend Canyon. The Colorado River snakes its way through Glen Canyon and Lake Powell near Page, blue sky reflecting in the water against the mostly red rock give some fairly spectacular views at any time of day. From our view point overlooking the rock we speculated how far down it was to the river at the bottom, our guesses ranged from 800ft to 1500ft, we had all missed the notice board at the beginning of the trail which would have told us it was 1000ft.

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As we took in the views Jan’s dog Daisy became acquainted with the water and was most put out when the waves just would not obey her barks, continuing to splash around her feet and getting her thoroughly wet in the process.

Over lunch we discussed our chances of flying the next day, Saturday, it did not look promising. Not only high winds but rain was forecast as an early winter storm crossed the area. By tea time Friday it was certain we would get a lie in Saturday morning but we all hoped the day would improve in time for the evening glow, an event the towns people look forward to very much.

The weather predictions proved correct and through the night Friday we heard rain on our roof and the wind buffeted around us. To pass the day we visited the museum in town dedicated to John Wesley Powell the famous explorer of the Colorado River. Across the street we strolled the market where the vendors were struggling against the strong wind to keep their stalls intact. However as the afternoon passed the wind did drop and by sunset we were ready to gather for the glow.

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Not to be outdone the sun put on its own display

The organisers decided that it was still too windy for the envelopes to be inflated but the P1220605go ahead was given for a simplified display, where the burners are ignited above the baskets. This still makes for a spectacular show as the burners roar together or in sequence. As the visitors and town folk walked up and down the row of baskets many stopped to thank the balloon owners for visiting and putting on the display, one man I spoke with expressed his hope that Sunday would be good enough for us to fly as his small children had been excited all week looking forward to the event. I agreed with him not letting on how I too had been excited for many weeks waiting for the same thing!

 

 

SUNDAY

Just before dawn George picked us up from the camp ground. The forecast looked better but we would not know until after the briefing if we could begin our task  of setting out the tarps’ and unfurling the envelope ready for inflation. We all sat expectantly in the car awaiting instructions. Small balloons are sent up to allow the pilots and organisers to judge how the wind is blowing, we watched as they floated above us, slightly towards the airport but not towards the river and canyon where the balloons were not supposed to fly. George returned with a positive answer – we could fly!

After 2 years Robert and I needed a fair bit of guidance to remember the sequence of laying out the tarpaulins and the envelope, it was all hands together and we had been joined by Mike another veteran volunteer with his friend Hal and wife Pam (locals of Page).

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Soon the envelope was ready to be filled with cool air to inflate it, when the pilot decides it is ready the burners are directed into the opening of the envelope and warm air replaces the cold. Slowly the balloon lifts up and its all weight on the basket to hold it in place until everything is ready for take off.

Personally I find the whole routine exciting. Laying out the envelope and seeing it IMG_0030unfurl, then, as it fills with air it comes to life the colours of the rainbow glowing in the morning sunshine.  George does his final checks of the balloon and radios, decides who will fly and then its off up into the sky!

First flight Sunday Robert and I were lucky enough to be asked to join George in the basket for a flight. Its a fantastic feeling up there above everyone, the basket feels very secure like standing in a lift (elevator) with glass sides except it does not go  straight up and down!

 

 

 

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Looking down on other balloons getting ready to fly

 

Down on the ground the rest of the crew were packing up the trailer in preparation for the chase. Whilst the pilot has some control over the flight it is largely determined by the wind and a suitable landing spot. The chase crews job is to stay in touch with the IMG_0033pilot, watch the balloons flight path and try to get as close as possible to the landing spot ready to steady the basket as it lands. Our flight took us over the town where the local people called and waved as we passed. I wondered about the children from the previous evening and hoped they were out watching. It seemed just a few minutes but was probably much longer than it felt when we came to a halt and Robert and I got out to let Hal and Pam in to the basket. The balloon took off once more and we joined the chase.

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It was a beautiful morning now and 55 balloons had taken off filling the sky with extra colour.

George had seen a possible landing site on the far side of the small airport on the north side of town, the chase car headed over in the direction indicated and we pulled over to watch and wait. It seemed the wind had stalled and Kaleidoscope was sitting over the mesa(a flat plateau with steep cliffs), between us and the airport,waiting for a change in conditions.

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We were on the limit of the radio reception, not receiving word from the balloon, all we could do was watch. As we did the balloon rose a little moved back slightly then after a while just sat still. What we were unaware of was a steep drop just in front of the balloon and that the wind rising up from there was playing tricks with Kaleidoscope and a couple of other balloons holding them captive.

 

Eventually it became obvious we had to head back towards the airport, by this time many balloons had landed either in the outfields of the airport or on the rough desert land just beyond. Fortunately the airport is small and at this time of year not busy, the staff seemed happy to help and were escorting chase crew into the grounds to recover balloons. They were aware of the position of Kaleidoscope but also that it was outside the immediate airfield and not in an easy to reach spot!

Lawrie and Monica were also with us by now in their 4×4 pick up truck, this was very fortunate as when we finally got to the closest road access to the balloon we realised how rough the ground was. No place for a trailer and the chase car was not 4×4. It was decided we would get into the 4×4 and cross the rough ground getting as close to the balloon as we could, the rest would be on foot. All the equipment would then need to be man handled back to Lawries’ truck to be returned to the trailer.

Extra hands seemed to come from nowhere, the police captain, his partner, their friend, some hikers on a nearby trail and the chase crew…. we all carried out the balloon, basket and associated equipment. It was loaded into Lawries’ 4×4 and the police captains truck, people in the truck and on the back holding equipment in place, we bounced our way the half mile or so back over the rough ground.  Photos would have been good but we did not have time, we were too busy thinking how to get the balloon back! When we had there was much celebration, a difficult recovery successfully achieved.

The 2011 Page Balloon Regatta was a very different experience from the one we had had in 2009. The weather certainly did not cooperate, spending time with friends and meeting new ones however made up for the disappointment of two days without flying and the excitement of the flights and recovery will be remembered by all for a long while I think.

One slight disappointment was I did not get to fold one tarpaulin, my very favourite task – however – from Page we were intending to visit the Las Vegas area to attend the Aviation Nation air show at Nellis Air Force base the next week end. George informed us he was due to fly in a charity event on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday and was in need of crew…… I just could not pass over the chance to get my fix of tarp folding, he did not have to ask twice.

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