Balloon pilots take aim at festival

Enterprise & Features

Teams compete for prizes at annual event in Harrison

HARRISON, Ark. — Ten minutes before the sun broke over the horizon Saturday morning, Rick and Rayne Davidson were frenetic.

The Harrison couple had been racing around the rural outskirts of the city in their Chevrolet pickup, trailer in tow, taking wind measurements at key sites. They were trying to find the perfect location to set up their hot air balloon and ride the prevailing winds to their target goal.

And they were not alone.

A dozen teams, all participants in the 18th annual Arkansas Hot Air Balloon Festival, were rambling around the roads, trying to find fields that would give them an advantage.

The Davidsons had the home-field advantage: Rick has piloted hot-air balloons in the area for more than 20 years, and he knows how to access most of the surrounding fields, as well as where to find the landowners to ask permission for access. At one point, Rayne ordered Rick to pull over, then sprinted across Arkansas 43 to knock on the front door of a small farm home. Less than a minute later, she hurried back to the truck.

“We got it! Go!” she yelled.

The truck rambled through a narrow gate, over a small creek bridge, and stopped in a spot of short grass in a field, with the rest of the Davidsons’ ground crew close behind.

After Rick Davidson filled a small helium balloon, a “pie ball” in ballooning parlance, and released it to give a final indication of the morning winds, he, Rayne, and eight friends quickly unpacked the materials of his hot air balloon and fully assembled it within about 10 minutes. Rick Davidson keyed the propane burner to heat the air trapped in the “envelope,” and after a last-second scramble to get into the basket, he was off.

Other than the intermittent roar of the burner, the commotion on the ground was replaced by complete, silent calm.

The morning’s event, a challenge to hit two of about a dozen ground targets with bean bags dropped or thrown from the hot-air balloons, was the second in a series of challenges that began Friday night and ends this morning in Harrison. Although Davidson said he had never won the event in the years he had competed, he said he usually finishes in the top five.

Patty Methvin, president of the Harrison Chamber of Commerce, said the event is intended to help foster community involvement, rather than raise funds for the chamber or the city.

“We budget to break even,” said Methvin, who estimated the total cost of the festival to be about $10,000.

Methvin said that events Saturday evening included $5 tethered rides in the balloons, allowing residents to get a short taste of life off the ground.

“We have multiple people who say this is a ‘bucket list’ item,” Methvin said.

In addition to points awarded for hitting two ground targets among the dozen or so mapped out for contestants before the challenge, participants also had the chance to win a cash award by grasping a ring that rested atop a 20-foot pole along the course.

“That pole has $10,000 at the top of it, and they don’t want it in an easy location,” Rick Davidson said.

The choice of where to take off is an essential one. Although pilots can control the altitude of their balloons by heating the air trapped in the envelope with a propane burner to ascend or releasing the air to descend, there is no steering mechanism. Winds blow differently depending on the altitude, and a pilot who is on course one moment can quickly be blown astray if he rises or falls too quickly.

“You gotta be able to to read the winds and have that gut feeling,” Rayne Davidson said. “Sort of move without thinking. Every little action [Rick Davidson] takes changes the path of the balloon.”

Pilots in competitive events typically rely on ground crews that navigate terrain and radio advice from locations along the course. Although the use of GPS devices aboard the balloons is allowed, Rick Davidson said he doesn’t use them.

“I am old-school,” he said. “I’ve learned to fly the way I fly today, and I’ve stayed with that because it’s been accurate for me.”

Contrary to popular images of balloon festivals in which pilots fill the sky hundreds of feet above the ground, Davidson and the other pilots mostly stayed 20 or 30 feet off the ground Saturday in an effort to stay on course. At several points, Davidson was close enough to chat with his ground crew, only slightly raising his voice as he passed overhead. Other moments found him steadily gunning the propane burner to rise above the tree line, branches brushing against the basket.

As Davidson approached his first target, he quickly gained about 30 feet in altitude, trying to catch a crosswind to get him closer to the large “X” etched into a field before hurling a small bean bag toward it. The bag landed about 12 feet from the mark.

A few moments later, Allen Lawson of Branson, who won Friday night’s Hare and Hound chase event, brought his balloon almost directly over the target and seemed to momentarily hover about 20 feet above it. With an easy underhand toss, he dropped a bean bag that landed within 2 feet of the mark.

“Not too bad,” Davidson said with a grin.

As the morning progressed, pilots gradually made their way through the course, trying their luck with the individual targets. They landed after they took their two shots or determined that there was no way to tack back against the winds to get to any remaining goals. After strong westward winds blew Davidson off his course when he ascended to avoid electrical lines in downtown Harrison, he radioed his ground crew and arranged to land alongside another pilot behind a local hotel.

Once Davidson’s team disassembled the balloon and wrestled its components back into the trailer, they met other teams at the Ranch House Coffee Shop, where pilots and team members traded stories from the morning’s flights.

“My favorite part was being able to drive that balloon today,” Davidson said. “Especially in those low valley draws, to be able to maneuver my way over to the target. I didn’t just get up in the air and fly straight. I actually worked the balloon. Knowing I had to drive and steer it — that was the exciting part.”

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Originally published Sept. 8, 2013, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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