No, itís not a car race. West Point, NE invited the Nebraska Balloon Club to help celebrate their 150th anniversary over the July 4th weekend with something new to Cuming County, a balloon rally! Originally the goal was 15 balloons, then 10, finally 6. NBC pilots attending the rally were Alan Paul, Jim Gunhus and Wayne Mohring. After no more takers from the club it was opened up to other Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota pilots. Brand new Norfolk, NE resident and long time pilot Gordon Emry accepted the offer. Rich Jaworski was to be balloonmeister but had to bow out when he ended up with another commitment. Wayne took over the role.
Cuming County is well known as cattle country, thereís even a billboard announcing that as you approach West Point from the south on US 275. The competition map had well over 100 "red zones" indicating all the livestock confinement areas that could be found viewing satellite photos of the county. Since very few flights in a balloon had ever taken place over the county, these were all unofficial red areas put on the map in hopes of preventing official PZís for future flights. Some flight directions were better than others, but no matter which way you flew you were bound to come across some feedlots. Thus the challenge of flying the county was presented to and accepted by four brave souls.
The schedule was a typical rally format: Friday evening glow followed by two flights Saturday and one Sunday morning. Given that nobody participating had flown this area before and there was no time to scout out the countryside for potential targets, Balloonmeister Mohring decided to call hare & hound tasks for the weekend, realizing that three hounds would not stiff competition make, but there was prize money to be had so we had to do something. Weather permitting, he had some other tasks up his sleeve. But weather didnít permit so those tasks will remain a secret until maybe next year.
The community of West Point bent over backwards to accommodate the balloons. Enough was provided to ensure the pilots that their out of pocket costs would be covered. And everything provided was top quality. It was fun to be treated like celebrities for a change, not a bunch of crazy people.
Wind forecast Friday evening was out of the southeast at about 9 mph. This is not conducive to a successful glow but the low lying area north of the city park might give us a chance. As luck would have it, the winds died down to about 7 mph and there was enough protection to perform a 40 minute glow, which the crowd thoroughly enjoyed. People were still talking about it on Sunday when we left and I imagine they might still be talking about it today. We packed up prior to the 10 p.m. fireworks.
Saturday was a different story. Winds were marginal for a morning flight and there was rain moving in. The flight was cancelled and an hour later it poured. All week the winds for Saturday afternoon were forecast to be around 15 gusting to 25. You know what, they were right. Another flight cancelled.
In the meantime, there was plenty to do with the 150 celebration on Saturday. This included a parade where we were invited to enter. Vaughn Beed, the local owner of a 19 foot tilt-bed flatbed truck volunteered to load up our balloon baskets and we burned our way through the parade route. It was fun watching the reaction of the spectators to the heat generated by all the burners firing at the same time.
Itís about this point in the story where you need to ask Alan Paul about Bailey, another local celebrity. Thatís his story, he can tell it better than anyone, so Iíll leave it at that.
Saturday night fireworks (thatís right, two nights for all you fireworks fans) were delayed about 40 minutes because the volunteer firemen standing by for the show had to respond to a fire about a half hour before the display began. The only downside to the weekend, one of the balloon sponsors suffered about $50,000 damage to his business. Eventually, enough firemen were released from the fire so the fireworks could begin. Ironically, this same balloon sponsor was also a major sponsor for the fireworks.
Sunday a.m. was holding some promise, but the threat of rain was again in the forecast. Winds were about 6 mph at launch and out of the south. Visibility to the north was 3 miles at best, but in this area only 1 mile visibility is needed if you stay below 1200 feet altitude. Rain was present to the west but it was dissipating prior to sunrise. After a half hour weather hold to make sure this was the case, the launch began.
Steering was wonderful. Down low, one would travel at a heading of approximately 290 degrees (WNW). At 1000 feet you were heading NE on a roughly 50 degree track. The hare went up and down, trying to dodge both the three hounds and the feedlots. According to 3 year old satellite photos of the area there were many alfalfa fields in this direction. With the high grain prices this year however, nearly all fields were now corn and beans. Finally, through the haze it appeared there was a fresh cut alfalfa field. The hare decided to land there after 40 minutes and 8 miles of flight. Alas, that fresh cut golden brown alfalfa field was actually wheat! Oops.
Rather than lay the balloon down, the target was a standing balloon. The intention was to fly out after the hounds flew past and their scores recorded, with the only damage to the wheat being the 4 x 4 foot square the basket smashed. Jim Gunhus recorded the best, and only, drop at approximately 12 feet from the center of the parachute top at the top of the balloon. The other two were lined up but less than a minute after Jim passed over, the left turn disappeared, leaving Gordon and Alan literally out in the east 40. In all that excitement and for the first time ever, Wayne found out what itís like to have a balloon naturally cool to the point where heat can no longer be introduced into the envelope. Oops.
With a little more wheat damaged, it was calculated to be less than $25 worth, the farmer still enjoyed the experience and refused payment. This was typical of the hospitality received in West Point over the entire weekend. According to the NBC scoring formula, Jim Gunhus won the West Point 150 rally with 875 points, Gordon Emry and Alan Paul tied for second at 500 points each and Wayne Mohring also received 500 points for being the hare. But this was not an official NBC task since we were short one NBC pilot per the rules.
The sponsors were all thrilled with their rides, the local crew was thrilled to be a part of the fun and excitement, and the pilots were thrilled to learn that there is talk of a second annual West Point 150. Maybe the name will have to change. No matter, count me in.
- Wayne Mohring