Hot air balloons liftoff

SCOTTS BLUFF COUNTY—The National Hot Air Balloon Championships and the Old West Balloon Fest took to the skies this past week. The festivities began on Aug. 7 with the Balloons, Burgers, and Brews event at the Gering Civic Plaza in Gering.

At the Balloons, Burgers, and Brews event, attendees had the chance to visit with some of the pilots who are competing in this year’s competition. Burgers, brew, lemonade, and snow cones were also available during the event.

“It’s basically just talking to the pilots and meeting with them,” said Steffi Geline Tactacan, Miss Old West Balloon Fest for 2021. “I honestly love it because last year because of COVID got canceled and this year seeing it all unravel in front of my eyes, it’s so amazing.”

The hot air balloons took flight for the first competition day on Aug. 10 after Monday’s flights were canceled due to weather conditions. During the competition, the pilots participating in the National Competition are given a set of tasks to complete each day during the competition.

“I’ll set the tasks for the pilots, and they’ll try to use the winds at different altitudes to navigate their aircraft or balloons into the targets. We’ll have a minimum of one task. We could have as many as five or six tasks. And then there’s a scoring program that tabulates a point total. And at the end of the week, we’ll combine all the points and declare US national champion,” said Paul Petrehn, Balloonmeister for the US National Championships.

Petra Wilson, pilot of High Lighter, said, “We have pilot briefing every morning at 5:15 a.m. and every evening at 5:15 p.m. and at the pilot briefing, they hand out the task sheets. We get a piece of paper that tells us what our different tasks are and we have an app called Balloon Live that we sync with a little device that allows us to mark our targets and drop markers as we’re flying along. There’s also some tasks that allow you to drop certain beanbags with different colors and things like that. All these events are scored and at the end of the event, they’ll take the top scores, and then they’ll determine their first second and third place winners based on the total scores.”

Wilson has competed for the last three years and is also the Balloonmeister for the Fall River Hot Air Balloon Festival that takes place in her hometown of Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Spectators were treated to a different view of the balloons during the Night Glow at Western Nebraska Community College on Aug. 11. The balloons inflated and when the sun went down, the balloons lit up as the pilot fired off their burners.

Patricia Newlin, pilot for Cloud Kisser II, was excited to have a full glow. Newlin said, “We love taking it to balloon rallies and just making people aware that Riverton (Wyoming) has a balloon that we have a rally the third weekend in July. I think most pilots love doing this. It’s a passion.”

Tamie Shrum, pilot for Te aMo, brought a special treat for attendees, a heart-shaped balloon with hands forming a heart and wings. “It’s great to see the enthusiasm of the kids and the people and make everybody happy,” said Shrum.

On Aug. 13, the Old West Balloon Fest pilots took off from Mitchell Airfield around 7 am before the Nationals pilots made their way to the target located on the airfield.

While the Old West pilot were unable to launch on Aug. 14, the Nationals pilots braved the winds and came to the Mitchell Airfield target, much to the delight of cheering crowds.

The KNEB Night Glow was threatened by high winds and a severe thunderstorm, but many of the pilots chose to stay and entertain the crowds that came with a candlesticking event. Candlesticking is when the pilots fire the burner, but there is no balloon attached to the basket.

During the week, attendees had the opportunity to collect trading cards from all of the pilots. Over 40 Nationals and Old West pilots participated in the event. Overall, Colleen Johnson, Balloonmeister for the Old West Balloon Fest was pleased with the event and is looking forward to
next year. 

2021 U.S. Hot Air Balloon
Nationals Top Five

1st – Chase Donner 15748

2nd – Jeremy Rubin 15383

3rd – Rhett Heartsill 15293

4th – Joe Zvada 14979

5th – Branden Bloom 14678 

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