Forty-four hot air balloons have soared over the valley since Monday as the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon competition began. While the targets are located across Scotts Bluff County, pilots and their teams meet every morning at the Gering Civic Center for a pilot briefing.
While the weather plays a major role in determining whether pilots can fly safely, the Monday and Tuesday morning tasks were canceled giving teams an opportunity to explore the valley.
A popular attraction for the teams was the Scotts Bluff National Moument.
Jim Cusick of Marysville, Ohio, who is competing in his fourth U.S. National competition spent time driving up the monument after the Monday morning flight was canceled. Crew chief Jason Petitte and crew member Sally Petitte went with Cusick to the top of the monument.
“It’s a gorgeous view,” Sally said.
Monday evening’s competition required pilots to throw a baggie onto a target at Landers Soccer Field in Scottsbluff.
Although Monday was the first day of competition, Nathan Luehrs and his sons Carter, Miles and Graham enjoyed watching the test flights over the weekend.
“We watched from the house Saturday and Sunday, and we were just amazed at the precision and control the pilots had,” Luehrs said. “It’s really an amazing opportunity for Scottsbluff and the Valley to host this.”
He added his sons Carter, Miles and Graham were picking balloons as they watched to see whose balloon would be first.
Wednesday morning the pilots completed four tasks as they headed in a northwest direction toward Mitchell.
The National Balloon Competition kicked off a week of balloon activities leading up to Saturday's Old West Balloon Fest. Some of the pilots arrived in town early and enjoyed watching the nationals.
“They just come blazing in at 5 to 10 mph, which doesn’t really sound like blazing unless you’re in a balloon,” said David Eichhorn, a balloonist from Albuquerque, New Mexico“This is a very scenic area. You’ve got a big honking river here, which we don’t in Albuquerque. We have the Rio Grande, which is usually the Rio not-so-grand. Really, it’s a nice area here. Everybody is friendly.”
As the national competition concludes, the Old West Balloon Fest will continue to celebrate the beauty of hot air balloon flying. The community can come out to meet the pilots and get an up-close look at the balloons and baskets during the Night Glow at Five Rocks Amphitheater Saturday, Aug. 17. Gates open 5 p.m. as over 70 hot air balloons glow from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. There will be a kid zone, food trucks, beer garden and music at the event.
To purchase a parking pass for the balloon glow, visit OldWestBalloonFest.com.