PHOTOS: Ballooning 101

After their first ride in a hot air balloon, Judy Landers, James Gridley, Lauren Brant and Brent Dormann participate in the ceremony where they picked up a cup of champagne as pilot Mike Johnson dumped water onto their heads.

Growing up in Colorado Springs, I remember visiting an air field as a little girl in awe of the vibrantly colored hot air balloons as they took to the sky. Since then, my exposure to hot air balloons has dropped off until last fall when I was assigned to cover the 2018 Old West Balloon Fest in Mitchell.

Arriving before sunrise, the pilots and teams attended the safety meeting before heading out in the field to unroll their envelopes and connect it to their baskets. During the first day of the balloon fest, my colleague Preston Goehring went on his first balloon ride. As I watched him float toward the clouds, I was excitedly nervous because the next day I was going up.

The following morning was calm and appeared to be a good day for a balloon ride. Once the sun peeked over the horizon the wind picked up, making it unsafe to fly for the larger balloons. I thought my chance to ride in a hot air balloon would be postponed until the next Old West Balloon Fest, but during a Ballooning 101 training June 14, I was one of four sponsors selected for a ride.

Admittedly, I was nervous as I continued photographing the balloon being inflated. With the basket upright and the envelope swaying back and forth above, I climbed into the basket. While I thought I was nervous walking around, I felt my heart beat in my throat as I found my corner of the basket.

With the tether untied from the pick up, we left the ground. The speed was similar to riding up an escalator, but the butterflies in my stomach and my white knuckles gripping the basket were signs this was nothing like an escalator ride. For the first several hundred feet, I looked across the basket at the other sponsors enjoying the view, while thinking I need to be taking pictures if only I could let go. I slowly turned around to look back at the Mitchell Air Field as the other sponsors watched us fly away.

The view was incredible and I quickly grabbed my camera and started capturing the moment. My butterflies were gone and I discovered the beauty of the valley from above. With the wind taking us in a southeast direction, we soon realized our vantage point allowed us to see wildlifem from deer to fish.

Since the balloon goes with the wind, I didn’t feel any wind hit my face, which was confusing as the trees and grasses below swayed back and forth. As we took in the sights around us, suddenly the balloon basket turned abruptly clockwise as pilot Mike Johnson pulled a rope to rotate the balloon. It was a new vantage point for everyone.

As we crossed over Highway 27, we began looking for a place to land. With our sights on an open crop field, the pilot instructed us to prepare for landing. That meant we needed to bend our knees, hold onto the basket and be facing the direction of our landing. I was not too concerned about the landing, so I decided to take a video of everyone’s reaction to the landing. Once we hit the ground, I was thrown forward into the basket and realized a video was probably not the best idea. The basket skipped over the field like a rock over water before coming to a stop.

The landing took my breath away and as the little girl in me remembered the Colorado sky filled with hot air balloons, I was grateful to have a new perspective of ballooning.

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Lauren Brant is a reporter with the Star-Herald and the Gering Courier. Contact her at 308-632-9043 or by email at lauren.brant@starherald.com.