Sky-high: Attendance, pilot numbers rise for Moffat County Balloon Festival
As the sun rose over the horizon above Craig’s Loudy-Simpson Park early Saturday morning, so too did more than two dozen pilots and their balloons at the 10th annual Moffat County Balloon Festival.
This year saw 25 balloons in the cool morning air, many all the colors of the rainbow.
“That’s the most that’ve ever flown,” said event organizer Randy Looper. “The other neat thing is we had 14 (balloons) on Friday, which is the most we ever flew on Friday.”
Looper estimated more than 1,000 came out to see Saturday’s main flight, with clear weather throughout the day making the myriad activities possible leading into the evening’s events.
“Everything about it just worked really, really well,” Looper said.
Among the pilots lifting off was Don Dougherty, who has logged about 700 flight hours over his 40 years of piloting hot air balloons. As he inflated his balloon with the help of his 16-year-old daughter, Eddi Rissman, Dougherty was anxious to get in the air.
“Let’s go play,” he said as he prepared to lift off, the craft becoming lighter and lighter with each flaming burst from his propane tanks.
Dougherty carries three 15-gallon propane tanks that equal about 2.5 hours of flight time. The tanks are a major part of flying successfully, but so are a number of lines and ropes to help steer and maintain elevation.
As he rose, Dougherty triggered the flames less frequently to maintain altitude or pulled the trigger hard and filled the balloon with hot air to effortlessly float over any obstacle.
One of Dougherty’s favorite pilot moves is to bring his balloon — and its occupants — close enough for the bottom of the basket to touch the water as one floats atop the water and the other on air.
As he dropped the basket down over the grass and tress onto the Yampa River, Dougherty’s basket touched the water and continued its carried momentum with the slight wind toward Yampa Valley Golf Course. After a few moments stillness on the glass water, the flames rose the balloon back over the tree tops and the higher altitude wind carried the balloon south over the soccer fields.
“It takes a touch,” Dougherty said. “There are pilots who can fly the balloon, but they don’t have that touch.”
Back on the ground, Dougherty’s wife, Jennifer Dougherty, drove a truck to find and help get the balloon and its occupants back to where they started if the wind picks up or changes direction.
“I pretty much just follow,” Jennifer said. “I usually let him get up off the ground and just watch him and figure out where he’s going.”
As he floated high above the field on the southern end of Loudy-Simpson Park, Dougherty spotted Bruce Wood, a pilot practicing for the Mount Everest of hot air balloon competitions.
“Nationals start next weekend!” Wood hollered at Dougherty from his racing-style hot air balloon as he jokingly pretended to drop a competition marker in the bed of a Moffat County Sheriff Officer pickup far below.
Though the wind conditions made for great flying early Saturday, Dougherty said he’s been in plenty of hairy situations over his 40 years of flying.
“It’s always an experience,” Dougherty said. “There’s times the wind changes from what was forecast. You just gotta deal with it and get yourself on the ground somehow.”
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When you hear an unholy shriek or a cacophony of chest-pounding hundreds of feet high, you know you’re about to see something fantastic.