Too much wind, low visibility keep hot air balloons grounded

Balloon Stampede directors expect today's weather to fair better for the 6:30 a.m. launch scheduled at the fairgrounds.

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Rain jackets and umbrellas protect Walla Walla Balloon Stampede spectators from a drizzly morning and low clouds while leaving the launch field along with balloon chase vehicles. The weather kept balloons grounded from the morning launch at Garrison Middle School.

WALLA WALLA - Too much wind, too little visibility and too much drizzle deflated the aspirations of 39 pilots who had high hopes of taking off at Saturday morning's Balloon Stampede.

The worst part about it for Pacific Peaks Balloon pilot Jim Smith of Tigard, Ore., were the looks on the faces of hundreds of disappointed people who came to see his and his colleagues' gentle giants take off at the 36th Annual Balloon Stampede at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds.

"Crowd disappointment is a big thing with us. But also pilot disappointment, because we love to show off our balloons," Smith said.

So about a quarter hour after the scheduled 6:30 a.m. start time, the only thing taking off were the crowds. All that remained were a half dozen balloon trailer rigs scattered across Garrison Middle School's field.

Gone was the monstrous flatbed trailer that serves as a stage for traditional master of ceremonies Jim Bock. Also taking off early was Bock's booming amplified voice and his vowel elongated signature sign-on: "Baaallooon Staaampeeede."

Other missing sounds included the power generators, blower fans, propane flames and clapping crowds.

But what could be heard loud and clear was the crying of Jane Barfuss, 3, as she, her brother and mother and father made it across the middle school parking lot, which was abundant in empty spaces and little downcast faces.

"It (the disappointment) is pretty high right now," Brad Barfuss said, as he led his son, Scott, through the parking lot.

Katie Barfuss, who was pulling her daughter along, chimed in, "It's scream and drag right now." And a couple of minutes later Jane started crying again.

But not all the crowds took off. Hundreds of people drifted to the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds for the annual Balloon Stampede community breakfast.

Along the way to breakfast, the one balloon that did make it up was tethered about 15 feet off the ground, It was the Inland Cellular booth balloon, a miniature with no gondola and all blue. Not much of a gentle giant, but for 2-year-old Sylvia, who came in a fleecy pajama jumper and rubber rain boots, it did the trick.

"What saved the day was the Inland Cellular Balloon. So we did see a balloon," said Sylvia's grandfather, Bruce Barga. But his grandson, Noah, 5, was a little too old and wise to fall for that one. "Noah knows what is going on," Barga said.

Usually it is winds that call off the Balloon Stampede. According to Smith, who some years will travel to almost a dozen ballooning events, it isn't so much Walla Walla's fault as just a seasonal hazard.

"This time of year until the summer sets in it can be iffy," Smith said.

The Tigard pilot noted the rain is as much to blame as the wind and poor visibility. It turns out the gentle giants don't like to get wet, or at least their owners can't find a laundromat that can handle several hundred square yards of fabric.

"You take a balloon that is 85 feet by 65 feet and it is hard to find a dryer big enough for it," Smith said, noting that packing them wet leads to mold.

Balloon Stampede directors expect today's weather to far better for the 6:30 a.m. launch scheduled at the fairgrounds.

By 4 p.m. Saturday a couple of pilots had tethered their balloon, but none officially launched into the skies all day. Then around 4:30 p.m., pilot Robert Raper of the Midlife Crisis balloon attempted to be the first pilot up on Saturday. Raper and his crew got to the point of standing up the envelope, but the 10 knot flag on the Fairgrounds Pavilion also stood out and started flapping again.

"At one time that 10 knot flag was down and I was feeling pretty comfortable with that," Raper said, pointing to the flag that was now standing straight out.

Pilot Cheri White of the Touchstone Energy Cooperatives balloon said she had no intention of taking off, but that didn't stop her and her crew from filling her balloon right after Raper ordered his back down.

"That stuff over there ...," White said while pointing to a huge storm cloud to the north, "... is too dangerous. We are just going to put it up for the crowds," she said.

Balloon Stampede directors expect today's weather to be better for the 6:30 a.m. launch scheduled at the fairgrounds.

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