Community comes out for first day of Old West Balloon Fest Friday

Ken Draughn flies his balloon low as he nears the target Friday. The national pilots could not get close enough to the target to throw their markers.

MITCHELL — After enjoying an evening at the night glow Thursday, Old West Balloon Fest pilots prepared for their first flight over Scotts Bluff County Friday morning at the Mitchell Airfield.

Following the morning pilot briefing, the pilots and crews were placed on a weather hold due to cloud cover and upper atmosphere winds.

As they waited for the OK, U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship target crew members laid out targets on the north end of the airfield. Two of the pilots’ tasks were canceled, but Maury Sullivan, balloonmeister and event director of the U.S. National Championship, decided the wind conditions allowed pilots to complete a Gordon Bennett Memorial (GBM) task. With two covered wagons staged and two triangles in the field, the officials cleared the national balloonists to launch.

“There is a limited scoring area,” Sullivan said. “They don’t throw their baggie at the X. They want to hit one of the four scoring areas.”

If the pilots’ baggies landed outside one of the scoring areas, they received no result and their score would be determined by the number of other pilots’ baggies landed in the area.

While the national pilots drove around the county roads looking for the correct wind line toward the target, some of the Old West Balloon Fest pilots inflated their envelopes and gave the community an opportunity to experience ballooning from the ground.

Pilot Cheri White allowed spectators to get into the basket with her as she used the burner to keep the envelope inflated. Serinda Aschenbrenner enjoyed looking at the balloons and getting to stand in the basket. With the burner handle down, and crew members holding the basket on the ground and tethered to the truck, Aschenbrenner said she thought the balloon was going up.

“It’s almost going to fly when she blows more fire,” she said.

Aschenbrenner’s favorite balloon on display Friday was the bumble bee balloon.

Amber Trenkle and her daughter Adelynn, 2, walked around the airfield looking at the colorful envelopes. Adelynn’s favorite balloon was Kelly Keller’s balloon because she likes rainbows.

“This is her first experience up close to balloons,” Trenkle said. “We’ve watched them fly over our house.”

As they stood beside the balloon as it inflated, Trenkle said the experience was breathtaking.

“It’s beautiful and amazing when they’re in the sky, but when you’re next to them, it’s breathtaking.”

Colleen Johnson, Old West Balloon Fest event director, helped her husband, Mike lay out their balloon envelope and to cold air inflate it. Once the envelope was fully inflated Mike invited youth to walk inside the balloon.

“It’s an old envelope and we want kids to experience how big it is,” Johnson said.

Johnson said they plan to provide the experience again Saturday morning.

Andrew Yuill was the first kid to walk into the balloon. As he ran around inside the envelope, he said, “It’s really big.”

Several kids ran back and forth in the balloon, some laid down on the fabric and rolled around.

“It’s cool that we can lean against the side,” said Maddie Wilds.

She and her friend Elizabeth Yuill explored the inside of the balloon together. Yuill’s mother, Sarah of Gering, watched as the girls laughed and enjoyed themselves at the balloon fest.

“I was wondering if she’d do it because she’s shy,” Sarah Yuill said. “She decided to go with Maddie.”

A couple minutes after the children started playing inside the balloon, the national balloonists floated over the tree lines from the southeast. Prior to their launch, there was a lower wind layer turning left, but by the time the national balloonists were up, that layer had dissipated, pushing them north of the target. Every pilot who flew missed the target.

Once the national balloons headed north of Mitchell, the public continued to check out the Old West pilot balloons and hoped to see them fly Saturday.

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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