GERING — U.S. National Hot Air Balloon pilot Jim Cusick of Marysville, Ohio, prepared for his fourth U.S. National competition Monday after completing test flights over the weekend.
As they awaited instructions on the morning flight, the judges canceled the flight due to the weather conditions being hazardous. With the first competition postponed until Monday evening, Cusick and his crew chief Jason Petitte and crew member Sally Petitte decided to explore the valley.
“It’s a gorgeous view,” Sally said.
After enjoying a day of sight-seeing, Cusick and his team prepared for the first task of the national competition, which was to throw a baggie as close to the center of a target located at Landers Soccer Field in Scottsbluff. Jason’s role as crew chief was to drive the pickup, tell the crew members what to do, check the radios and help the pilot find a wind line to the target.
“I make sure Jim has all his baggies, he has water, weather sheets and walkie talk,” Jason said.
With the help of his crew, they navigated to the northeast side of Scottsbluff Monday evening to find a launch site that would take the wind close to the target at the soccer fields.
“Last night’s flight was as expected,” Cusick said of Monday’s task. “They called it a safe task, which is what is important for the event. We were able to put on a show for the community and everyone was able to fly safely.”
With the balloon in the air and Cusick heading toward Landers field, he said he remained focused on several factors that could affect his marker.
“I’m so focused on flying the balloon, but also getting my marker out and scoring,” Cusick said. “But paying attention also to my surroundings. You really are a multi-tasker. You’ve got your balloon, you’ve got your marker, you’re making sure you’re not getting too close to the ground and any balloons around you.”
During Monday’s flight, the pilots use a logger to track their altitude and speed, which they return to the judges for them to assess each pilot’s flight within the parameters of the task. Throughout Cusick’s flight, his logger indicated during his ascent to 1,500 feet, the balloon was traveling approximately 15.5 mph.
The pilots remain conscious of their surroundings throughout their flight to avoid damaging contact with another balloon. For the public who watched Monday’s task, they saw some envelope-to-envelope contact. Since the balloon has give to it, this type of contact is not as dangerous as a basket-to-envelope contact or basket-to-basket contact.
“With it being hard and having the potential of broken wicker, it could rip the fabric,” Cusick said.
Cusick competed in three U.S. National competitions in Longview, Texas, in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Throughout his involvement in competitive hot air ballooning, Cusick has seen weather’s impact.
“It happens,” he said. “It’s weather and things happen and change."
Cusick is flying the balloon Bolt with the number 23. He threw his baggie 54 meters or roughly 177 feet from the marker and placed 12th in the task.
After learning Tuesday morning’s launch was canceled due to severe weather in the Chadron area, Cusick and his crew strategized other flights so they could improve their accuracy.
“I’ll probably go out a little farther tonight than I did last night to give myself a little bit more room to do course corrections,” he said.
While the team spent time outside the Gering Civic Center Tuesday morning visiting with fellow teams, the wind changed directions with the potential the area could see outflow from the Chadron storm.
“What you’ll get potentially is outflow,” Cusick said. “When a storm will let loose, it dumps all of its energy and you can feel it on the ground and in the air.”
Those conditions make flight unsafe.
The morning launches thus far have been canceled due to the conditions of high winds aloft, but Cusick noted not enough wind is also problematic.
“I’m the weather officer for a small event back in Ohio and I’ve done the pibal reading,” Cusick. “I’m looking at a pibal through the system that has a scope on it. I finally stop and step back and it’s straight up. I watched it to 3,000 feet.”
So little wind would have taken the balloons straight up.
“If you send balloons straight up, they’re going to hover and there’s a chance something could happen,” Jason added.
As the pilots continue to soar over Scotts Bluff County, the art of competition is behind the scenes as teams work together to hit the mark.