By Marcy Stamper
The 21st-annual Balloon Roundup was “weathered” out by wet snow on Friday, but Saturday and Sunday provided ideal weather for flying, said Kurt Oakley, co-owner of Morning Glory Balloon Tours in Winthrop.
Saturday dawned with glorious sunshine, and most pilots flew 5 to 6 miles and landed near the Methow Valley State Airport, a pretty typical route, said Oakley.
On Sunday pilots and their passengers got a different view as they hovered over Winthrop. There was wonderful visibility and winds were so calm that it enabled all the balloons to fly within a mile of each other over the town, said Oakley. The conditions took them on a less-common route, heading north from the launching site behind the Winthrop Inn.
This year’s festival attracted 20 balloons from across the Northwest and Canada, as well as one from Arizona. About half have been coming for a dozen years, said Oakley.
Eliav Cohen of Seattle Ballooning took five passengers in his balloon, dubbed Up, Up, Up by his 2-year-old son.
“When you understand topography, wind is exactly like a river. There are eddies and all kinds of changes,” said Cohen.
“We have terrific control of up and down, but left and right is up to Mother Nature,” said Oakley. There are no instruments to tell them what the wind is like at different elevations, but pilots read Federal Aviation Administration forecasts and understand how weather systems work, he said.
Balloons usually travel about 5 to 10 miles per hour, but they want to land in as little wind as possible. Before they set off, festival organizers send up a helium balloon to give people a sense of the winds. Some balloon pilots spit over the edge of the basket to get a sense of what the wind is doing, said Cohen.
“Ballooning is always different. I fly in four different seasons, with snow, green fields or autumn colors. The winds are always different and no two days are alike,” said Oakley.
“Contour flying — just above the trees — is my favorite thing in the world,” said Cohen as he navigated over the treetops before heading south along the Methow River.
The festival is organized by Morning Glory Balloon Tours and the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce. The chamber provides free propane to all the balloonists, who come on their own dime because they enjoy flying in the Methow, said Oakley.
Oakley extended his thanks to all the property owners who have fields and driveways where balloons often land. “We really do just drop in on people,” he said.
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