They may never be hot air balloon pilots, but a few youngsters learned what it takes to get a balloon off the ground then land it before a sudden breeze takes it away. They were reminded that teamwork can make a challenging job easier and more rewarding at the end of the day.
“I thought it was hard work but it was fun,” said 10-year-old Luci Dohl after the three-hour ground crew training session. P.J. Williams, 11, agreed even after all the hard work.
“It’s actually really fun and it’s not that scary once you get the hang of it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to helping out during the event.”
“I thought it was fun, a good skill to learn and a nice hobby,” said Hannah Gonzales, 12.
Lovelock balloon pilot Pat Irwin organized the class to attract volunteers for the upcoming Lovers Aloft Hot Air Balloon Festival, scheduled for Feb. 18 — 19. Volunteers are always needed to help balloon pilots and their crews unpack, launch, land and repack the aircraft.
Assembly of the 400-pound, 90-foot tall “Patriot” including propane burners, tanks and other gear at first seemed like a daunting task for the young, inexperienced crew. But, they pulled it off without mishap or injuries despite an unexpected breeze that nearly took off with the balloon.
At first, the air was calm as Irwin and his crew rolled out the Patriot. But, as the aircraft inflated and lifted off the ground, the sudden breeze nearly wrenched it out of their control and into the sagebrush across the road. Luckily, the crew managed to hold on to and land the aircraft.
“The wind was kicking our butt. It was twirling the balloon in a way that made us work harder,” Irwin said. “If a big wind had come up, we could have been draping this thing right over the truck.”
It was a glimpse into the potential hazards of a sport at the mercy of unpredictable weather. After the incident, however, Irwin shared his enthusiasm for the hobby despite the uncertainty.
“I was crewing and at one point I said, ‘you know what, I could be a pilot, I could do this, this is fun,’” Irwin said. “I did everything from parking cars, cooking breakfast, pumping propane to coordinating a balloon event. I said, ‘I’m going to fly,’ so we got a balloon.”
FESTIVAL SCALED BACK
Last year, balloon pilots were grounded by wind day after day and no balloons left the ground during the event. It was a first in the 12-year history of the Lovers Aloft Hot Air Balloon Festival.
As well as calm, clear weather, the event needs support from the community. There was less of that available this year so the festival has been scaled back to a two-day, non-competitive rally.
Still, around 18 balloon crews are expected to rent motel rooms, dine in restaurants, buy gasoline, propane and supplies and otherwise benefit the Lovelock community next month.
Irwin hopes to resurrect a balloon program for the Pershing County 4-H Club. A corporate donation enabled Irwin and fellow balloon pilot Kearney Davis to start such a club years ago.
“When Kearney and I decided to become balloon pilots, we went to AT&T and said, ‘you’ve got an old balloon, what are you going to do with it?’” he said. “AT&T donated the balloon to 4-H and we started a 4-H program.”
On Saturday, Irwin complimented his ground crew and encouraged them to spread the word.
“This is a great bunch and you guys would be more than welcome on my crew permanently,” he said. “I have a lot of hot air balloon pilots that need help and you guys would be excellent.”