Weather conditions keep balloons grounded

Balloonists share information on their sport.

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Grounded due to intermittent rain, instability and chances of thunder storms, Saturday morning's balloon vehicles exit Garrison Middle School's field on wet streets and under ominous, swirling clouds.

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Rainbow at morning...balloonists take warning. The low, morning sun erupts briefly out of a break in cloud cover Saturday, May 15, 2011 shortly before 6 a.m. in Walla Walla, Wash. to illuminate a rainbow through damp skies above the Fairgrounds and launching point to the 37th Walla Walla Balloon Stampede. Citing "intermittent rain, instability and chances of thunder storms", balloonmeister Jerry Cummins closed the field to balloon launches shortly after the Pilots Meeting that morning. (AP Photo/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Jeff Horner)

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Under low, grey skies, Saturday morning's Pilots Briefing at the Fairgrounds was brief with a check-in, weather check and closing of the field for launches.

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Balloonmeister and local pilot of The Spirit of Walla Walla hot air balloon, Jerry Cummins is closed within the framework of another balloon pilot waiting the official word on whether a Balloon Stampede launch will take place Saturday morning, May 14, 2011 in Walla Walla, Washington. "I'm a retired Navy man," commented Cummins, "and there's an old saying 'Sunset at night, sailor's delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning." After a weather update, Cummins closed the field citing, "intermittent rain, instability and chances of thunder storms" during the Pilots Meeting held at the Fairgrounds' launch field. (AP Photo/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Jeff Horner)

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Friday's Balloon Stampede launch was successful but ominous, dark clouds hinted of things to come Saturday morning.

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Red sky at morning...balloonist take warning. Red, orange, dark and ominous it was when the sun broke over the Blue Mountains around 5:30 am onto the rainy streets of Walla Walla. And balloonists did take warning, canceling the Saturday lift-off at Garrison Middle School.

WALLA WALLA - Inclement weather left 34 of the 35 pilots participating in this year's Balloon Stampede grounded Saturday morning.

As for the one hot air balloon that did make it up, it rose only a few feet off the ground, as it was tethered the entire time.

"Balloons are pretty fragile. It's definitely a fair-weather sport," said Scott Spencer, a veteran commercial balloonist, as he scanned the sky pointing out the virga.

The vertical streaks of precipitation hanging down from clouds wreak havoc on any balloonist who attempts to fly in or near them.

"A hot air balloon is not like an airplane. We need to know what the weather is right now where we are," Spencer said.

While the cancelation of the balloon launch was a letdown for pilots and spectators, the chance to mill about at ground level was an opportunity to catch up on some of the lesser known facts about ballooning, including the costs.

In addition to the thousands spent to purchase the hot air balloon, pilots must pay for insurance, a pilot's license, travel expenses, propane and yearly inspections.

But temperature and the sun are among the more costly factors.

Heat and ultraviolet rays wear out the costly envelopes, often making them unusable after only a few years.

"They wear out so you either sell them to someone, repair them or let them die," Balloon Stampede co-founder Mick Vale said.

For a balloon to lift with force, the temperature inside the envelope has to be considerably hotter than the outside.

The general rule is that at sea level on a 60-degree day, the temperature inside the envelope would have to be 150 degrees Fahrenheit to give adequate lift.

As more riders are added to the gondola, the heat must be increased, thus increasing the wear on the envelope.

With an average life span of 200 to 300 hours, most balloons are ready to be replaced in about five years, depending on how much time, weight and heat they experienced.

"That's what makes it so damn expensive. The balloons don't last," Spencer said.

Newer materials are stretching the life of balloons to 600-700 hours, which would be about a 20-year lifespan for a hobby balloonist who flies 30 hours a season, Spencer said.

Most hot air balloons range in size from 60-80 feet, can hold around 77,000 cubic feet of air, contain about 1,600 square yards of fabric, 2,500 feet of reinforcing tape, 6-8 miles of thread and are generally sewed with a French felled seam.

Kemp Lindsey of Boise, Idaho, was once a distributor for a U.S. balloon maker.

He estimated a new balloon, gondola and burner can be purchased for as little as $25,000 to $30,000, or a lot more, especially if you are buying an art balloon.

Art balloons are envelopes with designs airbrushed or hand painted on the side.

A classic example of such a balloon is the Spirt of the West, which is flying in the Balloon Stampede for the second year.

The image on the balloon is of seven cowboys and one Native American, all on horses surrounding the envelope. The 40-foot-high images are painted as if they are riding away from the balloon. The result is when the balloon is seen rising over a ridge or tree line, it looks as if giant riders are cresting the horizon.

"That's probably the best art balloon ever," Spencer said.

Spirit of the West pilot and owner Jon Seay doesn't like to share how much it cost to have the artwork created, though he said it took the artist around 2,000 hours to create and cost a "bucket full of money."

Seay did say the artwork far surpassed the cost of the balloon and was paid for by the defunct Baby Bell company known then as US West; it cost close to six figures to have painted.

"We did that when they started opening up Russia. We were going to fly it over there," Seay said.

The Spirit of the West never made it to Russia, but it has been around the world numerous times.

When US West went out of business, Seay bought the hot air balloon and continued flying it. He now has numerous balloons, including three other art balloons.

Spencer also owns two art balloons, which portray depictions of his two daughters.

"I am too embarrassed to say how much (they cost)," Spencer said.

Spencer owned his first hot air balloon at 14. Later in life he switched from a successful career in commercial aviation to an even more successful career managing numerous hot air balloons and pilots for corporate clients.

He has since semi-retired, but still operates balloons for two of the most sought after corporate sponsors: Disney and Coca-Cola.

"We are pretty blessed. We try to be humble about it. We are just very lucky," he said.

The downside of the business would be the extensive travel, which was not a downside for his wife, Laurie.

"That is the best part. And we get to meet so many people, and the friends that you make," she said.

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