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By Staff | Aug 21, 2015

I was out planting corn one morning when I saw a UFO.

The gigantic sphere sported brilliant red and yellow stripes. I shut off the tractor to see if the aerial oddity made noise, but it simply hung there, silent and motionless.

Even at half a mile away, I could see that it was big enough to deserve its own ZIP code.

The colossus slowly drew closer. I was wondering if it carried intelligent life when it emitted a throaty roar accompanied by a yellow tongue of flame. The UFO continued to drift leisurely northward until it disappeared.

Such was my first encounter with a hot air balloon. My second experience took place recently, during the Great Plains Balloon Race in Sioux Falls.

My wife and I arrived early at the park where the balloon race was to take place. Several gondolas sat in a roped-off area with acre-sized swatches of dazzling fabric spread out on the grass nearby. The entire hillside was a crazy quilt of primary colors.

As my wife staked a claim with our lawn chairs, I wandered over to a gathering at a picnic shelter. I struck up a conversation with a nice lady named Sharon Castle, a crewperson for the balloon that’s piloted by Duane Waack.

I asked Sharon how she got started in ballooning.

“We had a neighbor who owned a balloon,” she said. “One day he invited me along for a ride and that was it; I was bitten by the balloon bug. I crewed for our neighbor until he quit ballooning and now I crew for Duane.”

How much of a “race” is this? Doesn’t everyone simply bob along on the same river of air?

“The wind speed varies at different altitudes, so a lot depends on the skill of the pilot,” explained Sharon. “Tonight we’re having a hound and hare race.

“The hare balloon will take off first. Its pilot will land, then place a big ‘X’ on the ground. The other pilots will try to hit the ‘X’ with a beanbag as they fly over. The closest one wins.”

I’d had no idea that ballooning involved aerial bombing, albeit with beanbags. Ballooning is a lot edgier than I’d imagined – as if floating through the sky beneath a flimsy cloth bag weren’t edgy enough.

Sharon told me that Duane’s balloon holds 105,000 cubic feet of hot air. Whoa. That’s nearly half as much as a standard presidential candidate.

As I strolled through the crowd, I noticed that several people were wearing black-and-white striped shirts. Who would have thought that balloon racers needed referees?

I chatted with Jaron DeWit, one of the striped shirt guys. I learned that he and the others who were similarly dressed were launch directors.

“I got interested in ballooning when I was a kid and our neighbor bought a balloon,” said Jaron. “He took me for a balloon ride and I was hooked.”

What are the duties of a launch director?

“Safety is foremost,” he replied. “When the balloons launch, one of the things we watch for is the possibility of a midair collision.

“We want to make sure that a balloon doesn’t lift off when another one is passing overhead. It’s not like there’s a big mirror on the gondola that lets you see what’s above.”

What do you like most about ballooning?

“The family-oriented atmosphere. My daughter took her first balloon ride two years ago, when she was 8. Even though the balloonists are competing, there’s still the feeling that we’re all one big family.”

Industrial-sized gasoline-powered fans sputtered to life and began to pump air into the balloons. Propane flamethrowers shot roaring jets of fire into the vivid nylon envelopes. The monstrous kaleidoscopic spheroids stood up and began to tug impatiently at their tethers. The tiniest breeze could send the gondola and its half-dozen crew bouncing across the grass.

Balloons began to lift off, rocketing skyward with surprising speed. The crowd cheered as each balloon left earth, each launch a shared victory. The evening sky became a bouquet of multicolored orbs.

Within an hour, trailers and pickups containing balloons folded into impossibly small bundles began to arrive back at the park. One balloonist set up his gondola and showed me how the burner works. The touch of a lever sent a pillar of fire leaping upward. It felt as if a hundred suns had suddenly shown their faces.

As darkness fell, some of the balloonists reinflated their aircraft. The burners cast a warm glow inside the balloons, turning them into barn-sized Chinese lanterns.

The experience may not have been as exciting as spotting a UFO. But it certainly was much prettier.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by email at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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