3-2-1 — liftoff! Young pilot takes new balloon on maiden flight

A group of early morning risers drift over downtown Walla Walla during the early morning hours Thursday.

A group of early morning risers drift over downtown Walla Walla during the early morning hours Thursday. Photo by Matthew Zimmerman Banderas.

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WALLA WALLA — Many pilots at this year’s Walla Walla Balloon Stampede have been around hot-air balloons a long time. But probably none have spent as much of their life dedicated to the sport as Kim Wooge has.

The 22-year-old, who makes her first trek from Missouri to the 39th annual Stampede, doesn’t remember her first actual balloon event. That’s because she was a mere 2 months old.

She was born to two commercial pilots who bought their first balloon in 1990, the year she was born. “I’ve been in it ever since,” Wooge said in a telephone interview from Missouri days before this morning’s media launch.

Her first time in the air in a balloon came around 7 or 8 in what proved to be a short-lived ride.

“I went up with my mom and my aunt,” she recalled. “It only lasted about 10 minutes because I got so excited I had to go to the bathroom.”

Wooge is by far the youngest of the 42 balloonists expected to launch over the Walla Walla Valley this weekend. A commercial pilot for the last three years, she’s grown accustomed to seeing a surprised look on people’s faces when they find out she’s the one navigating the skies.

“They tend to think anybody around as part of my crew is the pilot,” she said. “I like to play with people now. I’ve gotten to the point where I say, ‘Well, how old do you think I am?’”

She went above and beyond to get to Walla Walla, finishing her final paperwork for her college courses a week early at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where she studies mathematics and statistics. When she’s done here, she heads back for graduation and then has the second year of a youth balloon camp on the calendar for next month in Iowa.

The extra work is worth the opportunity to take a never before flown balloon on its first flight in unexplored territory, Wooge said. Afer arriving in town Wednesday, this morning’s flight was the inaugural launch of her new oblong-shaped racer balloon dubbed Ribbon Racer and created by Lindstrand Balloons of Illinois.

The 60,000-cubic-foot balloon is ideal for competition, Wooge said.

“You can spend less time in a wind current you don’t want to be in. You can control more where you want to go,” she said.

But competition is just one small aspect of the attraction to Walla Walla’s annual event.

“Flying in a new area is always fun, doing something you haven’t done,” she said. “If you have a boat, going out on a new lake is more exciting than the same place you’ve already been. Part of ballooning is going to new places, traveling and meeting friends.”

As Ribbon Racer floated away from the grounds of the Jonathan M. Wainwright VA Medical Center, Wooge manned her first solo flight in a never before flown balloon.

On her ground crew below was Walla Walla restaurateur Hannah MacDonald, whose sponsorship of the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede has some deep ties to ballooning. The Walla Walla resident grew up with the Balloon Stampede here but got an up-close experience with ballooning as a private chef for an American hot air balloon company run by Buddy Bombard in Beaune, France, more than a decade ago.

During the winter months five or six balloon pilots would take their clients on weeklong ballooning trips. MacDonald would feed the clients and crews, shopping in the mornings at the bakery, butcher shop and markets for the day’s meals. As part of her venture, she traveled to Château-d‘Oex in Switzerland, where an international balloon festival takes place every January.

“It was really spectacular,” MacDonald marveled. “The crews would come back with these stories. Since it’s winter and there’s snow everywhere you get this big bonus for not crashing a truck during the season.”

MacDonald returned for the first time last winter and got her first ride in a hot air balloon with her son, Christian Torres. The two paired back up this morning to help inflate the envelope for Ribbon Racer and then assist with deflation and packup of the balloon. Although it was the first meeting for MacDonald and Wooge, it certainly won’t be the last as flights take place throughout the weekend.

Walla Walla is not exactly new ground for the Wooge family. Wooge’s father, Scott, has flown in the Stampede in the past. This year, the event will be a family affair as Scott Wooge pilots the Lindy hot air balloon. The two will also be joined by Wooge’s mom, Cynthia.

Scott and Cynthia Wooge began teaching their daughter the ins and outs of ballooning before she was old enough to have a learner’s permit.

“I was actually 14 when I had my first piloting experience,” Wooge said. “I inflated a balloon for the first time.”

She obtained her commercial license after meeting the requirements for flight time, training and more when she was 19.

Her latest mission is bringing the joy of ballooning to the next generation of pilots. The ballooning camp she directs in Iowa, now in its second year, is targeted toward 13- to 17-year-olds. About seven youths will return this year for the nearly weeklong camp, she said.

“There’s a lot of people who think ballooning is just this sport for older retired men and they don’t think it’s attainable for young kids who don’t have a lot of money and don’t have a lot of the connections I was lucky enough to have,” she said.

The inclusion of younger people is a necessary direction to bring in new pilots, she said. Last year alone saw the deaths of three older veteran pilots tied to the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede, said Betsy Hadden, director of member services for the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Wooge said she knows of only four other pilots in her peer group. Her youth was noted when she was handed her pilot’s license. “When the guy handed me my license he said you’re the first woman I’ve ever licensed, and you’re definitely the youngest,” she said.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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