Balloonists conquer wind, four tasks during Wednesday flight

Aaron Foelske flys the hummingbird balloon, number 11, alongside Todd Isley during Wednesday's national competition flight. They flew over a field north of Highway 26 as the winds carried the balloons toward Mitchell from Scottsbluff.

SCOTTSBLUFF — As the morning sun crested the horizon over the valley, balloon pilots from around the U.S. lifted off to complete the second set of tasks Wednesday.

There were four tasks for the pilots to score points on as they headed in a northwest direction over Scottsbluff and northeast of Mitchell.

For pilot Leroy Clair of Carlisle, Iowa, the Wednesday morning flight was a windy challenge.

“As we were climbing, we were hitting wind sheers and they were really bad,” Clair said. “It was fun. It was a great flight.”

According to his logger, Clair traveled at a top speed of 47 kilometers or 29.2 miles per hour.

Clair touched down northeast of Mitchell on Cook Oil Road and found the judges’ tasks called achievable.

“The winds were worked out good for us,” Clair said. “We’re flying on the edge of a bunch of wind disturbance with all the storms around, so it’s been a challenge for them to get tasks called.”

Reflecting on the flight, Clair said his favorite task was the final one, which was a maximum distance double drop.

“The idea behind the target was we had to come in and have our baggies as far apart from each other as possible,” he said.

Taking the scoring quadrants into consideration, Clair and his team determined the furthest point on an arch to drop the second baggie. During the task, his balloon reached about 3,900 feet above the ground.

“You had to go through a bunch of wind disturbances to get that high,” Clair said. “It tossed you around a little bit.”

For Re/Max balloon pilot Matt Fenster, the morning flight was a challenge.

“The speed that we had and the tasks that we had caused us to have to go from basically the surface up to 7 to 8,000 feet in flight,” Fenster said. “It was very challenging, but a lot of fun.”

After getting his balloon into the air, Fenster was focused on hitting the targets. While his accuracy was off on the first two targets at Lacey Park and Western Nebraska Community College, he did better on the third target.

“When I let it go, you’re coming across there at 25 mph and it’s truly a guessing game,” Fenster said. “You’re doing a drop, so you can’t throw it. You’re just letting go when you think you’re in the right spot.” With trees quickly becoming a factor to his west, he let go of his baggie and focusing on getting over the barrier.

“I didn’t see it land and when I turned around, I saw it landed in the middle,” he said. “I thought ‘was that me?’ Somebody called over the radio and said that was me.”

The first task was a fly-in where the pilots flew their balloons over Lacey Park on the east side of Scottsbluff and dropped their baggie onto the target. The task tested pilots’ accuracy as they were not allowed to throw nor wind up their baggie. They draped it over the side of the basket and dropped it with the hope the wind would carry it onto the X.

After completing the task, they continued flying toward Western Nebraska Community College. The public viewing area was at the grass fields east of the track. When they reached the target, pilots completed a calculated rate of approach task (CRAT). Pilots had to drop their baggies into a quadrant or onto the target X and surrounding circle based upon the time of arrival at the field. If they did not drop their marker into that area specified, it did not count. The locations changed every 15 minutes, including the X, around the X marker and quadrants A and B further out.

The third task took the pilots to the Scotts Bluff Country Club. The judge declared goal was a gravity marker drop, but pilots had to be aware of powerlines and tree lines on both sides of the target. Then, they completed a drop at a property east of Mitchell.

The final task of the morning was the judge declared goal of an aerial virtual maximum distance double drop. Pilots had to drop a baggie within the areas specified northeast of Mitchell to have the longest straight-line distance. The best result is the straight-line distance on a 2-D basis.

Once Clair completed the fourth task, he looked for an open location to land. He found a field with tall grasses along Cook Oil Road where he was able to go down.

“We were able to run through the tall grass and try to scrub some speed off before we really make hard contact” he said.

The national pilots will fly Thursday, Friday and Saturday mornings, weather depending. There will be no more evening flights. Should the pilots not fly the rest of the week, the national competition will still meet the requirements. Pilots must fly two days and complete a minimum of five tasks. They have completed six.

Hot air balloons will continue to fly around the county the rest of the week as the Old West Balloon Fest Night Glows take place at Western Nebraska Community College Thursday at 6 p.m. and at Five Rocks Amphitheater in Gering Saturday, Aug. 17, from 9 to 10 p.m.

We're always interested in hearing about news in our community. Let us know what's going on!

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

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