High tension

[AUG. 26, 2000]  Friday evening’s Balloonfest crowd was witness to a spectacular and frightening sight as one of the launching balloons had an untimely accident with local power lines. At about 6 o’clock Friday evening, there were five or six balloons already launched and going up into the warm night's sky a peaceful and rewarding sight.  At the northwest end of the fair grounds track, two other balloons were preparing for launch.  “Big Red,” flown by George Norman (sponsored by Verizon) took off, cleared the fence and the road, but failed to continue the necessary rapid ascent.  Instead of gracefully taking to the air, the balloon came toward the earth.

[click here for pictures of the event]

Dave Campbell, director of the Balloon Festival, said that both the pilot and his one passenger climbed out of the basket when it came down and made first contact with the ground.   As soon as the pilot and passenger were out of the basket, the balloon now lighter without a payload went aloft again, tangling in power lines several times before twisting for a final landing across Lincoln Parkway; in front of Greyhound Lube.  


The crowd was excited, stunned and horrified as they watched this aerial ballet and the demise of a favorite balloon.  A bright flash was seen as the balloon first made contact with the wires.  Brown smoke poured from the envelope.  Another explosion was heard as a gaping hole appeared in the side of the balloon.  The balloon went skyward again before it finally settled to the ground.  Emergency crews were said to have arrived just as the basket touched down.

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Fellow balloonist Dave Reineke had just started to take off in his balloon when he saw that “Big Red” was having trouble. Reineke said, "He was doing a perfect rapid climb, and then started to fall."   


Utility crews turned off power to Lincoln’s west side for a time on the high-tension lines while mooring lines were untangled from the wires. 

Campbell went on to explain how proud he was of the volunteers and emergency personnel for the response.  "We have planned and practiced for years in case anything like this would ever happen.  They responded in two minutes." 

FAA investigators have impounded the craft and they will attempt to make a determination of what went wrong. Pilot error is suspected.

Campbell finally said, "I'm so proud of all the workers."


Going with the flow

[AUG. 26, 2000]  No wheels, no rudders, or steering wheels, how do you steer a balloon?  Basically you don’t.  You are at the mercy of the airflow.  You go where the wind takes you.  Air currents influence the direction a balloon moves.  At one level the winds may be going one direction and at another level an entirely different direction.  So by rising and lowering you can nominally guide the balloon.

So say veteran balloonists, Jerry and Mary Ann Garcia.  The Garcias have been ballooning nearly 20 years.  This is their sixth year in Lincoln.  They have the same people wanting to crew for them year after year.   Their sponsor, Lincoln Iron and Metal, wants them to keep coming back.  After spending some time with them it is perfectly understandable why. 

At home in Albuquerque, the Garcias fly every weekend. Their 7-year-old black Labrador, Dusty, often goes up with Jerry when he is the only person flying. Wife Mary Ann loves the chase.  Figuring out where to be ready and waiting can be quite a trick.  This is what Mary Ann loves figuring out, and she has learned all the tricks.  “If there are other balloons out, you can learn to read the balloons by observing what directions they are moving at certain heights.  It takes some practice," she says, "but I’ve become pretty good at knowing just where he’ll land.”


Where they fly at home they have a unique phenomenon not found on the plains.  There is a valley with box airflow.  At upper heights winds flow in one direction, and at lower heights the winds move in the reverse direction. Jerry may be heading in and change his elevation and go back out. So, Mary Ann just sits and waits until she knows Jerry is coming all the way in before maneuvering for position.

They attend and compete in many festivals throughout the year. Festivals draw balloonists in a number different ways.  They offer awards and trophies, cash prizes, and sometimes even merchandise.  Most find ways for balloonists to accumulate points something like dropping numbered beanbags on a target.  A couple of the more unique competitions the Garcias have attended offered keys to a new car to be found in one of several helium-filled balloons, or if you could just grab the keys to a new home in a mock cardboard chimney. While Jerry likes to win competitions “He will do all he can to win” his wife, Mary Ann, respectfully admires his ability to not care if he doesn’t win. Jerry can rattle off quite a number of first places he’s taken in competitions.

The Garcias' favorite aspect of hot air ballooning is donating their services.  They regularly donate rides to be auctioned off at fundraisers for many causes.  From local sports teams support to charity benefits, they have provided rides as part of Make-a-Wish Foundation, United Way and other charitable causes.  They have also taken a number of special people up, including Belarussian kids, World War I naval officers and their wives, and many others.  


The Garcias have Lincoln ties.  Born and raised here, Mary Ann (Ellis) went to Northwest School and is the sister of Diane Turner. When asked what her favorite memories of Lincoln are, she responds easily, “I miss Christmas here.  It just isn’t the same in Albuquerque. ”   She also misses the seasons changing.

The Garcias have been coming to the Lincoln festival about six years now.  Smiling, Mary Ann recalls, “The most memorable experience coming to the Lincoln festival was the year the winds took Jerry over LDC.  Jerry had a short landing for a passenger exchange there and all the kids came pouring out to see the balloon.  They were so excited.”

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During the week Mary Ann works as a legal aid while Jerry works with computers, setting up and maintaining extensive networking systems for GE Card Services.  Both work in Albuquerque. They schedule their vacations to travel to the longer distance festivals, sticking mostly to the Southwest, with Lincoln being their farthest destination.  They usually travel with some good friends from Albuquerque.


Some balloon memories shared by the Garcia’s:

The most beautiful competition they attend occurs in the bluffs of Utah.  The balloons are gracefully propelled by air currents around red, spiky peaks and mountainous escarpments.  “It is just stunning,” recounts Mary Ann.

The most challenging has been a flight in below 20-degree temperatures.  Heat tapes are necessary to keep the propane heater warm enough to ignite. Beyond that, Jerry recalls being a little nervous as his hands stiffened from using the cold bare metal propane handles.

The most startling experience was the flight Jerry was on with a youngster in the balloon when a freak rain occurred.  They heard the ping and sizzle noise created by raindrops hitting the taut, hot fabric and echoing in the balloon.  “That’s not a noise a balloonist is familiar with," Jerry recounts.  “Balloonists generally don’t fly in the rain. It was just this one lonely cloud let loose of some rain right over us.”  They couldn’t even see the raindrops or the cloud as the balloon canopy blocked it for quite some distance outward.  


The most humorous experience was the time they landed almost at dark, just over a ridge, so that the chase car couldn’t see where they were.  They were mistaken for ceremonial dancers as they waved their flashlights atop the hill for over an hour.
    Thursday evening the Garcias played host to two first-time riders, LDN’s managing editor Jan Youngquist and a Carroll Catholic fifth grader, Kyle Brown.  Brown and Youngquist both enjoyed the beautiful evening aerial view of Lincoln.  While riding they saw deer, deer trails, several blue heron, a large turtle on a Kickapoo Creek sand bar, and a blue haze-tinted landscape for miles and miles.  Their dream-like ride was concluded by a quintessential soft landing on the lawn of the Jim Phelan farm just west of Route 121.

“It was just gorgeous.  I couldn’t believe how Elkhart Hill stands out in the landscape,” Youngquist marveled.  Later she was treated to the traditional first-time balloon ride champagne toast.