Flying high: Four balloons took to the skies over Frenship

Higher-than-desired winds did not keep four balloonists on the ground Saturday at the South Plains Balloon Roundup, but a low cloud base on Sunday kept many of the several balloons from testing the skies.

Thirteen pilots and 12 balloons were at the event.

Chris Jones, an Amarillo pilot, was one of the four who got off the ground on Saturday despite the fact that winds were above 10 miles per hour.

“The manufacturer’s book says do not take off over 7 miles per hour, and do not land over 12. But I tell you what, if I’m in the air, I’m going to land,” said Jones. “What we love, honestly, is around 3-5” miles per hour.

Jones’ balloon, known as Serenity, landed on 130th Street, due south of Wolfforth’s Patterson Park.

“It’s about three miles, and we did it in about 12 minutes. We peaked out at a maximum of 37 miles per hour yesterday, which is very fast, and we landed at 22,” he said.

Although three other balloonists took off on Saturday, many of the pilots did not even attempt due to the wind.

The S.S. America, a balloon from Corpus Christi flown by pilots Jerry Hooper and Bill Fitzgerald, was the first balloon inflated Saturday, but it was deflated shortly afterward. A prayer was said as the morning was started in memory of the victims of Sept. 11 nine years before.

Sunday was closer to what the pilots wanted to fly in at around 7 miles per hour at the park, Jones said. But Federal Aviation Administration regulations require that pilots have 1,000 feet of clear skies below them and 500 feet above them. The cloud base on Sunday was just 300 feet.

“It’s for safety reasons. It’s for us landing. We can’t see highlines; we can’t see towers,” said Jones. “And it’s also for other aircraft: They can’t see us.”

While Jones tethered the Serenity balloon to a pickup Sunday and allowed it to hover briefly for spectators at the park, another smaller craft also hovered nearby on a smaller tether.

James Morgan brought a remote-controlled balloon to the ballooning event. At 2,200 cubic feet, it is smaller than larger balloons like Serenity, which is 77,000 cubic feet in size. It also has no basket for carrying passengers.

Morgan said he is currently working to get his piloting license for a larger balloon, but there is no license required for the smaller remote-controlled balloon. It is also cheaper to fly because it runs on propane bottles from Wal-Mart and no insurance is required to fly it.

But the smaller balloon is also even more sensitive to the elements. While Morgan said larger balloons aren’t supposed to go up in more than 10 mph winds, his remote-controlled balloon is not supposed to go up in more than 5 mph winds.

But he said pilots usually want to share their love of ballooning to spectators at events like the South Plains Balloon Roundup.

“We at least try to stand up, if nothing else,” said Morgan.

Wolfforth City Manager Darrell Newsom said city officials were disappointed the weather did not cooperate. He said the Wolfforth Economic Development Council and Wolfforth Community Development Corp. put up about $6,000 and $2,400, respectively, for advertising for the event.

“They tried their best,” Newsom said of the pilots. “It’s all understandable. They’re taking their life and limb in hand.”

The city would like to host the balloons in conjunction with another event, like its Harvest Festival, Newsom said, but he said October is generally the time that balloonists take off for the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M.

“I think in order to make it work, we’ve got to find something that if the balloos don’t fly, people can do something else,” he said.

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