My brother Steve has posted an item to his blog about the 34th annual Walla Walla Balloon Stampede, which is being held this weekend.
For decades (as indicated by the "34th") hot-air balloonists have congregated in Walla Walla, Washington for a spring weekend and engaged in daring aeronautic feats, most of which involve wind, champagne, and squashing a portion of some local farmer's asparagus or wheat crop. (The stampede thus continues a love-hate relationship between farmers and balloonists that probably stretches back to ballooning's origins in the countrysides of 18th-century France.)
When members of my family besides my brother lived in Walla Walla, my parents would volunteer for "chase crews" that aided the balloonists. A chase crew is necessary because a balloon's ability to navigate is limited; it is largely at the command of the prevailing winds, much like John McCain. The crew helps stretch out the deflated balloon on a large field (when I was a kid, the Walla Walla High School athletic field); then holds onto ropes to keep the balloon straight as the balloonist inflates it with the burner mounted above the basket. Once the balloon sails off, the crew hops into a van or pickup truck; and follows the balloon as it floats through the atmosphere. When the balloonist brings the balloon down for the final time (by controlling the influx of new hot air into the balloon), the crew gathers up the balloon, rolls it up, and stashes the balloon and basket in the back of the chase vehicle.
When I was about 12, my parents got me involved in chase crews. That involved waking up at 4 O'god on a weekend morning, grabbing a pair of canvas gloves from my dad's store, and enjoying a primo view of the balloons as they inflated and sailed off. I got to ride in the balloons twice, which was a transcendent experience. Since balloons move with the wind, there is almost no wind on a balloon flight, resulting in a smooth sailing experience.
If you live anywhere near the Walla Walla area, I recommend heading over there, sampling some wine, and watching the flight of man's oldest flying machine.
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