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Exploring Utah: Staying safe within reach of adventure’s prize

First Published      Last Updated Jun 14 2017 12:11 pm

A small helium balloon rises out of the orange cliffs of southeast Utah while several pilots stand below and wait for it to translate the sky.

A big decision hangs on the bobs and swerves of the pink "pi-ball." Surrounding the pilots in the gravel parking lot of the Bluff Community center are trailers for 25 hot air balloons. Twenty-five pilots and crews wait to learn whether they'll fly today.

There is a lot of gray in the sky over Bluff, but also some blue and early morning streaks of gold. The weather for the town's annual balloon festival, held in January, doesn't look awful.

But it also doesn't look great.

Enter the festival balloonmeister: Cookie May See. (Yes, that's her actual title. And yes, she volunteers,that's her actual name. "Don't ever let your grandma name you," Cookie warns.)

Cookie watches as the pi-ball disappears into the lowest layer of clouds at about 1,200 feet.

"In this air space, that's flyable," says Bryan Hill, a pilot from Page, Ariz., who is Cookie's right hand man for the weekend. "But it's a pretty tight margin."

Balloonmeisters exist for tight margins. At a festival, pilots agree to abide by the balloonmeister's decision to stay grounded, and that means giving up one of the only opportunities to be in control. Apart from this moment — deciding whether to fly at all — hot air ballooning is largely an exercise in powerlessness.

"You submit 100 percent to the conditions of the day," says pilot Gary Woods, who traveled to Bluff from Ridgway, Colo. with his balloon, "Skywalker."

The pilots talk with hushed reverence about flying on a good day — especially here in southeast Utah, where an annual flight through Valley of the Gods is "a sacred experience," says John Ross, who brought his balloon, "Longwinded," from Wisconsin.

"It's just a gift from God to be able to fly and make people happy," says Cookie, who came from Elephant Butte, N.M.

Pilots never have precise control over where balloons travel, but they can watch trees, flags, smoke and other balloons to see wind direction at different elevations and rise and descend accordingly. If all goes well, the balloon can be landed next to a road, with no mud or water to mar the "envelope" (the balloon fabric).

But an unexpected wind can deposit a balloon in places ranging from inconvenient to dangerous. Pilots at the Bluff festival recall career mishaps when they were forced to land on bridges or atop remote desert mesas — or drop a fast-blowing balloon abruptly to the ground in what they call a ripout, or, euphemistically, a "sporting landing."

And there is the ever-present, if remote, chance of critical failure: fire, collisions, hitting a power line.

These things don't usually happen when conditions are decidedly good or decidedly bad. No sensible pilot will take a balloon up in obviously unstable weather in the first place.

No, Cookie says. If the balloonists find themselves in peril, it probably will happen on a day like this: not awful but not great.

The balloonmeister has to make the call for the whole group, and folks traveled a long way for their sacred experience. Pilots have come to Bluff from several states. One is from England.

The sky says flying probably would not be disastrous. In a few minutes, crews could be proudly unfurling their envelopes, and colorful globes soon would dot the desert sky.

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Kanab Balloons & Tunes Roundup

The annual event takes place this weekend in Kanab, with balloon flights, a battle of the bands and a street fair. Events include:

Balloon launches » 7 a.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Coral Cliffs golf course.

Balloon glow and lantern launch » 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday on Center Street.

Battle of the bands » 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, on the north end of Main Street.

Street fair » 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday on Main Street.

For a schedule of bands and other performances, visit balloonsandtunesroundup.com.