With ballooning, it’s all about hot air

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I saw two hot-air balloons floating above the West Valley on my way to work this week, and was reminded how mesmerizing those voluminous orbs can be. Once you spot one, it’s hard to take your eyes off it.

When we moved to the Flathead Valley in 1991 there was a hot-air balloon festival every fall, and it was quite literally a heavenly display of color as the balloons lifted off in an open field north of Kalispell.

The year my daughter Heather turned 9, I hauled a van full of girls on her birthday to the local balloon launch at the crack of dawn. True to her gregarious nature, she talked her way onto one of the balloons — it looked like a big pink ice-cream cone — and got a complimentary hour-long ride. All it took was some chatty conversation with the balloon owner, and a little girl’s charm. She was fearless that way; I was a little unnerved when the gas burner roared and my child floated away.

As I drove the other girls around the area, following the balloon’s flight path, they were green with envy.

“No fair,” they whined. “I can’t believe Heather got to go up in a balloon and we didn’t.”

I don’t remember why the balloon festival was discontinued, and I wonder if it could be relaunched in the Flathead. It’s something for local tourism officials to think about as an ideal shoulder-season event.

My infatuation with hot-air balloons goes back to 1980, when I got to cover a balloon festival in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. I was a cub reporter and had the opportunity to hop aboard a balloon for a first-person perspective.

The grand plan that crisp February day was to catch the breeze that typically blows from the northwest and float all the way to St. Paul (with various stops along the way) for the big winter carnival there. The wind didn’t cooperate, though, and instead blew us northward.

It was a beautiful trip, floating above the snow-laden fields, but it was bitter cold — it was February, after all, in northern Minnesota.

We obviously never wound up in the Twin Cities, and instead landed outside the tiny village of Flom, where the crew ceremoniously poured champagne over my head, a tradition for first-timers.

A co-worker and I had big plans to take our pursuit of hot-air ballooning even further. We both got our student pilot licenses for operating a balloon, and my friend, a skilled graphic artist, even had a design in mind for our own balloon. We were young, though, and easily distracted. Our hot-air dreams soon evaporated in pursuit of more practical interests.

Here’s a bit of trivia I found on the Mental Floss website about hot-air balloons:

• A rooster, a duck and a sheep were the first balloon passengers in 1783 in Versailles, France. “Sheep, thought to be similar to people, would show the effects of altitude on a land dweller, while ducks and roosters, which could already fly, would act as controls in the experiment,” the website noted.

• Condemned criminals were considered for the first human flight because Louis XVI didn’t want to be responsible for any deaths. In the end, a scientist and an aristocrat were the first humans to fly in a balloon.

• Abraham Lincoln established a Balloon Corps during the Civil War to spy on enemy movement.

• The tradition of drinking champagne after flight originated to appease the French farmers who didn’t like the aristocracy floating above their fields and crushing their crops when they landed. Somehow a glass of the bubbly made it all better.

Features Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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