Weather deflates Balloon Fest

17 years ago

    PRESQUE ISLE , Maine – Poor weather conditions kept the hot air balloons that were in town over the weekend for the Crown of Maine Balloon Fest grounded.

“Wild” Bill Whelan brought his Eh Team balloon from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada to the festival.     “We had a very, very severe weather system that came through and it was all part of that same weather system that went across the Midwest with all the flooding,” he said. “Over the weekend, we got the very beginning of it.”
In terms of wind, Whelan said balloonists look for “a nice, very stable air mass.”
“We didn’t have a very stable air mass this time,” he said. “Saturday night we had an abundance of thundershowers and heavy rains, and there were some weather clouds that were in the 40,000 to 50,000 foot range. With that, the air mass is very turbulent. Aircraft don’t fly in it, balloons don’t fly in it.
“People need to remember that a hot air balloon is just a big bag filled with hot air,” said Whelan, who has been flying for 25 years. “There’s no support mechanism in it … it’s only us putting air in the bag that keeps it inflated.”
When pilots arrived at the Northern Maine Fairgrounds and began checking the wind patterns, they learned that the wind conditions several thousand feet in the air weren’t favorable.
“The weather office first told us Sunday morning the winds were about 34 knots at 3,000 feet. If it stays up there, we’d be in fine shape, but when the sun comes up, it usually pushes high winds down to the surface,” said Whelan. “We let children’s balloons go up in the air and we time it … they climb 300 feet per minute and we see what direction it goes in.
“When we first got here, the altitude was 750 feet and within about 10 minutes it was down to 650, and then 10 minutes later it went down to 450 feet,” he said. “We have altitude restrictions when we fly, and Sunday’s weather pattern, for example, put us in the fast winds, or sheer, and we couldn’t get off the ground.”
Whelan said the wind can create turbulence that can wreak havoc on a hot air balloon.
“With an airplane traveling through turbulence, it’s like driving on a bumpy road,” he said. “In a balloon, when we pass through it, as the wind speed picks up, the top of the balloon picks up speed before the bottom of the balloon picks up speed – because there’s about 100 feet difference between the top and the bottom – it’s very tumultuous.”
Whelan said there’s a saying balloonists follow in terms of safety.
“It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground,” he said.
Fourteen balloonists from throughout the country – Florida, Vermont, Connecticut and Alabama, as well as Canada – were on hand for the second annual Crown of Maine Balloon Fest.
“The pilots, crew and people who love balloons were all happy to be together and have time together,” said Derik Smith, chair of the Balloon Fest committee. “The flying is just the apex. Everyone had a good time … they went out and had dinner together. It’s very much a social event for them.
“The other events we had went as well as could be expected considering the weather,” he said. “Anyone who came seemed to have a really good time. The kids who were here Saturday for the children’s games were just ecstatic.”
While spectators may have been disappointed to learn the balloons were grounded, Smith said safety is more important than fun.
“The safety of our pilots, crew and passengers is everything,” he said. “We are not going to risk lives for anyone’s entertainment.
“We’ve gone from the best you can have to the worst you can have in two years,” said Smith. “Last year we had scheduled five flight windows and had five launches. Five for five. This year, unfortunately, we were 0 for five.”
Whelan said while it’s discouraging not being able to fly, it goes with the territory.
“We were at a 10-day event recently and they had a total of 18 flight windows for us, and we did 14 of the 18,” he said. “The year before that, we did six of 18. There have been other events we’ve been to for five years in a row and the balloons never lifted off the ground. You just never know.
“We want to fly … there’s nothing better than being up there and drifting along. We fly, God navigates, but when the weather’s bad, we’ve got to stay grounded. Safety first,” said Whelan, who attends about 17 festivals each year. “Some of us got here early and we got our balloons in the air Wednesday and Thursday.”
Ironically, Whelan got involved in ballooning to help him get over his fear of heights.
“I was afraid of heights … still am,” he said. “But the rush from the flight is greater than the fear from the fall.”
Flying from the Star City is “beautiful,” Whelan said.
“It’s absolutely great here,” he said. “The people are lovely and we have a great time when we’re here. The landowners always welcome us.”
Smith said Balloon Fest will continue, and he asks the public to be patient.
“It’s an education,” he said. “If we can keep the event going for the next 10 to 20 years, 10 years down the road if something like this happens, the public will be, ‘Well, this happens,’ because they’re going to be used to it,” he said. “The festival is still new and people are learning how balloonists operate.
“Ballooning is 100 percent weather dependent,” said Smith. “It’s not just sun or rain, or wind or calm … it’s a combination of all those things. When you have an outdoor event, the weather controls it.”
Smith said the festival will continue to be held the same weekend because it’s now part of a circuit.
“We have this weekend because it was free between all the other festivals,” he said. “The festival schedule is Lewiston-Auburn, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec, then us, then Gatineau, Quebec, and Sussex, New Brunswick. We’re in the circuit, so we really can’t move the date around. We’ll keep plugging away and hope for better weather next year.”