They always excite everyone. People stop their cars alongside the road, run out of the house and onto the yard to look up to a magnificent, peacefully floating hot air balloon. On last Thursday evening, I was able to be the person in the basket, looking down on the people waving up at us as we gently floated by.
It was a practice flight and just-for-fun hot air balloon ride the night before the 3rd Annual Red Rock Lake Balloon Fest. My pilot was Jeremy King of the FlyinKOAT Balloon Team out of Indianola. He had been around hot air balloons before, and he played with the idea of buying one and thought, “Why not?” So eight years ago, after hours of pilot training, practice fly time, and the completion of the FAA test to obtain his license, he purchased his first hot air balloon to fly for both hobby and competition. As a participant in Red Rock Lake’s Balloon Fest, he was excited to take us out in his balloon named “Old School” for a practice flight before the weekend’s competition.
Several other balloons took off out of Knoxville and Pella that evening, and I was joined by Matt Kissinger, President of Lake Red Rock Association and Edward Jones Financial Advisor at Knoxville, and his wife, Debbie. We were all experiencing a hot air balloon ride for the first time, and were all a little nervous as we watched King and his crew unload a small basket with the colored balloon wrapped up inside.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect a basket that only came up to my waist and was just about 3’x4’ wide. King was cool and calm as he and the team rolled out the balloon, undid the straps holding the balloon together, and started putting in the pieces to the basket, or gondola in balloonist lingo. Four 10 gallon LP tanks were in each corner, ready to fuel our way across Knoxville. I felt a little better after he mentioned the mandatory inspections balloons undergo every year.
After the balloon was unwrapped and stretched out on the grass, King switched on a fan at the base of the balloon and we watched it balloon up. It didn’t take long and soon we were climbing into the basket amidst the blow of LP and flames shooting up into the balloon to make it rise.
Pretty soon we were floating up peacefully and quietly. The height surprisingly did not bother me. The highest we went up was 800 feet, a small distance compared to the 7,000 feet King travelled up to on one flight. As we soared over Knoxville, young kids and families ran out into their yards and streets to wave hello.
“My personal opinion, the best part of ballooning is the thrill of seeing people’s faces light up, especially kids. It’s great to see them smile,” King commented as he blasted more LP up until the balloon.
In less than 10 minutes we had passed over the VA facilities. We were travelling no faster than 10 miles per hour, but we seemed to be moving over the city and fields in no time. Turns out there aren’t many hay fields in between Knoxville and Pleasantville, which is where King always tries to land, so we travelled for quite some time looking for a good place to land the balloon.
King was practiced at his ballooning, and would skim close to fields looking for a place to land and take us back up if it wasn’t a good landing spot. You simply go where the wind takes you, so finding a spot to land is tricky. The pilot has a team down below watching your route, trying to pinpoint a good landing spot that is away from power lines, crop and livestock.
An hour and a half after takeoff and 12 miles later, we skidded to a stop in a bean field just east of Pleasantville. The Kissingers and I bent our knees and grasped onto the side of the basket as we skidded a few times to a stop, and then walked the balloon out of the field and closer to the road.
Riding in a hot air balloon for an hour and a half was an awesome experience, and watching 29 balloons launch and fly over Lake Red Rock and seeing them lit up at night is just as fun. In its third year, the Balloon Fest has added more balloons and events into the fest, and they hope to continue to add balloons and more entertainment into the next events. Pilots and enthusiasts come from all over the Midwest to watch and fly hot air balloons over Iowa's largest lake, the only balloon fest in Iowa like it.
“It helps the economy and brings money into the towns,” Kissinger commented.
It will be interesting to see what more they come up with for next year’s event, and seeing more balloons scatter across the sky.
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