(Moorcroft Wyo) It was a dark Saturday morning, just before sunrise, when people started to gather in a field near the KOA Campground, in the shadow of Devil's Tower. Everyone was looking up and watching the sky and the giant American flag flying at the entrance to the monument. They were watching the wind, because they were here to FLY!
A group of about eight balloonists, organized by Black Hills Balloons, were here to take passenger on an unforgettable ride. Devil's Tower National Monument was to be the backdrop for their flight. But there was a bit of a problem. Wind....or too much wind that is. It seemed they had all driven here for nothing. Some, like pilot Ray Shady, coming all the way from Casper. Don't give up reading though, because these pilots didn't give up. With base camp being in the KOA Campground, just outside the park, the plan was to wait it out and see if the winds would die down in the afternoon about 5pm. They were looking for winds of about 8 Mph. Right now, they were 14 Mph. This is Wyoming you know! The wind always blows here!
Flash forward to 5pm. A crowd of eager pilots, their chase teams and passengers, assemble in the parking lot of the store in front of the KOA. Again, they were all looking up, looking at the flags. A man holding a black helium baloon stands with the balloonists. He was there to test the winds aloft. Without much warning, he releases the balloon. Would it go up? Would the wind drag it sideways across the parking lot? Up it went, and as everyone watched it turn into a speck in the sky, there was silence.
What did it mean? Go or no go? Fly or cry? Suddenly someone said "Let's Fly!" and everyone scattered to the alternate take off site, just inside the park.
There wasn't much time to get airborne, because the sun was setting fast! Teams scrambled to get into the field and spread out. Trailers all lined up like an assault force ready to do battle. Off came the baskets and then huge bags that held the colorful balloons. Teams raced to drag the balloons out into the grass. Suddenly, powerful fans roared as they started blowing into the balloons causing them to take shape on the ground. Like psychedelic mushrooms, they slowly grew. Then with a blast, propane burners started filling the balloons with the hot air needed to lift them off the ground.
One by one, the balloons filled and rose up above their baskets. All while the tower watched.
Once filled, they didn't wait but moments to get the happy paying passengers aboard for their flight of a lifetime. One by one, and with a huge grin on their faces, they were off. Set against Devil's Tower, this was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Beautiful colors and patterns drifting on the winds.
Chase teams sprang into action. The tradeoff for such a late start would be a short flight. The flights would last about 20 minutes this evening. Where would they come down though? Before that, the adventurous pilots had a little fun as they flew. Capt. Ray Shady took his passengers for a skim across the treetops. Some were able to reach out and pluck leaves from places that a giraffe couldn't get to. Then up higher they went, to get a better view of the surrounding landscape. This was nothing like you have ever seen from the ground!
Photo Courtesy of Alicia Lynne, Casper Wyo.
After what seemed like an all too short
time in the air, the intrepid pilots started heading for the ground.
They were aiming for the original starting point they had intended
for the morning launch. Most balloons hit their marks, with only a
couple drifting astray. One was out in the nearby trees and one
overshot the field, seeming inaccessible to their chase team. I followed Capt Shady's balloon and caught up to it as they were letting the air out of the balloon. It lay out across the field like an exhausted runner.
Passengers and crews still had huge smiles on their faces and high fives were given all around, as this is one day they would all never forget.
Here are a few extra photos as a thank you for reading this far.