The 2009 gas race was a no-go thanks to weather nonsense that cropped up
right at the worst possible time: smack dab in the middle of inflation. The gas
committee weather man Randy Lafavor called the winds to be 6-8 knots during
inflation, and our private weatherman Don Day called the same thing. There was a
last minute change in the low down in the south that “packed up the gradients”
as don said and caused a ridiculous amount of wind; some 25 knot gusts that
caused holy terror for us. Randy beat himself up for this error but it was
totally not his error, he did the best he could. Weather is not exact or well
behaved, as we all know.
Brian and I drew the lucky bean and were first to launch, so 10 minutes before the start we dropped the diffuser in preparation for launch. Well, we tried to drop the diffuser. Thanks to me, the ropes were not properly positioned inside the appendix and they got all knotted up on the diffuser while still installed. When we opened the appendix and lowered the diffuser, it was a complete mess, requiring the exciting and embarrassing visit from the manlift. Our crew member Mick Heim climbed aboard the manlift and successfully got it all untwisted. Dropping early was our second mistake. Before dropping, we should have confirmed that launch was on schedule, but we did not. They put us on a 30 minute hold which meant we were now no longer able to add gas to the balloon. To make things much, much worse, was that I did not properly tie off the diffuser closer line which allows us to seal the bottom of the bag so the gas does not escape or get mixed with air. Well, within 10 minutes, we lost the whole bottom of the bag of gas. We tried to grab the line with people jumping in the air as the balloon swung down near the ground. Yes, it was that windy, and that ridiculous looking. The line was short because the bottom of the line was tied in one of those stupid “daisy chain” knots that I have despised since 1985. They are unnecessary and cause issues since many crew members do not know the secret trick to getting them undone. I realize that I am alone in this opinion. All the cool teams use daisy chains.
Out comes the manlift again, and once more Mick climbs up and gets the closer line down. This was far more difficult than it sounds since the balloon was banging around back and forth like a hootchie mama on a trapeze. We were now able to seal the appendix, but at this point it was too late.
Now, what might not make sense to any of you that do not fly gas, is that the loss of gas is not an issue for flight. When gas balloons rise, the gas expands and fills the bottom anyway. Our situation would have simply meant that we would have climbed about 3,000 feet without having to ballast. In fact, the balloon actually climbs smoother with a soft bottom. The reason the gas loss was such a problem was that it allowed the bottom of the bag to essentially become a sail and reeked hell by letting the bag swing all over the place: A full bag is far more stable in the wind. Things got so bad that at one point Bert Padelt’s envelope was rolling on the ground, and this is substantial because Bert is a highly skilled gas pilot.
Our basket got a real workout, but you would too if you had 2,000 pounds of sand tied to you in a 25 knot wind.
John Kugler had enough sense to pull early, and the rest of us pulled after the officials called the race around 730ish. Hearing $60,000 worth of helium release into the atmosphere was truly depressing for both the teams and the gas committee. The amount of work to get this event off is extraordinary. We start planning and preparing two months in advance, pouring an embarrassing amount of money into the gear and such for the race.
From the time we got to town the weather guys were already sure that Saturday was probably our only chance and even then the weather was going to be problematic during the entire flight with all sorts of thunderstorms and other various forms of hell to entertain us along our journey. The winds were so fast up top that 60 hours could be too fast getting to the east coast. Best guess trajectories showed landings in or around the Carolinas and Virginia. This of course means crossing the appalachian mountains with landing possibilites in forested valleys. Looking back at the weather, there were indeed substantial thunderstorms which very likely would have resulted in a short flight to Kansas or so. That’s about two bucks a mile.
A really annoying thing that happened right off, was that when we arrived at our launch site after briefing, our launch area was full of hot air teams still partying away. I think fiesta should have probably gone out there an hour earlier and got them to move off, but this did not happen so we were unable to start our work until they packed up and moved out. Once again Brian and I drew the lucky bean because in the middle of our launch square was a monster special shape chase commander and about 20 sauced up people and a very busy margarita machine. The officials went over and explained the situation and asked them to move as quickly as practical because preparing the gas balloons can take all afternoon right up until launch time. Well, 10 minutes later I walked over to their scene and they had not moved an inch: they were all still sitting down and the margarita machine was flowing well. The race official had to go over a 2nd time to get them moving. Only then did they slowly, very slowly begin to fold up their chairs. 20 minutes later I walked over and they were all standing around outside the monster-commander doing nothing. I asked if they would mind driving off the site and they informed me that they were traveling with another team and were waiting for them to finish packing. Again, they only needed to drive about 50 feet to clear the gas area. 5 minutes later, they finally chugged their chase commander out of the way. There were several other groups that behaved in the same way, seeming to have no concern whatsoever on their actions. This is not only rude to the gas teams but also to the race officials who had to keep asking them to please cooperate. I find this discouraging because these teams who think they are entitled to special treatment make a bad name for the balloon community in general. I like to party on the field as much as any of them, but being rude is never an acceptable behavior. We asked for no special treatment, only courtesy in helping us out by moving the party over just 3 launch squares. In Stark contrast Many of the other hot air teams were polite and immediately packed up and were off the area within 5 minutes.
During the wind from hell, Brian held down the fort and I went around to each of the pilots giving them the weather information I had got from Don: things were going to stay bad for at least an hour and we could hope for 10-15 steady at best for launch. I found that all the teams were very pessimistic and ready to pull. Andy Cayton’s basket sustained serious damage. Mark Sullivan said his basket was now “much shorter than it used to be”.
After Wally Book told us the event was scrubbed, the bag hit the ground, and instead of depression, we all felt relieved and almost happy. The stress and known weather dangers ahead weighed heavily on us and we were grateful to be on the ground.
The gas inflation teams, put out an extraordinary effort, worked tirelessly from 1pm until we were packed up at 9pm. They stayed at our sides and did any task that was asked of them, including going to buy me a hat at concession row so i did not get a redneck.
We went back to the hotel and ate pizza and drank a cooler full of premium Lone Star beer