Landowners are an essential element in all hot air balloon operations. This year, the 14th Annual Collage of Culture, presented by "Yarrow" on May 19 and 20, has invited 20 balloons to paint local skies with special school programs and VIP flights throughout the preceding week.
Special recognition will again be made to Jefferson County landowners. Each pilot is provided landowner appreciation certificates with a tear-off coupon that will be used in a drawing to send one of the landowners on a special date for two. Last year, Loy Peterson enjoyed a get-a-way with his wife at Kah-Nee-Ta Resort.
Ballooning is a social activity which includes many people from our community, according to balloon meister John Leisek. "These pilots view their sport as an art to be shared with all, as they paint the sky with their custom designed balloons," he said.
The Collage committee has spent hundreds of hours coordinating pilots, sponsors, balloon crews, and logistical support to bring a million dollar art gallery into area skies.
"None of this could happen without the hospitality of the landowners," said Leisek.
Balloons cannot be steered against the wind, he noted. Experienced pilots feel the subtle differences in air movement at different altitudes and then try to use the ever-changing currents to navigate their balloons.
"It's often said that if you're concerned about where you are going and when you'll get there, don't take a balloon," he said. "That makes almost every flight a trespassing situation where the pilot will not know where they will land until they get there."
A balloon crew attempts to stay at arm's length ahead of the balloon with a recovery vehicle and communicate with the pilot by radio.
About 20 minutes before the anticipated end of a flight, the pilot starts to identify potential landing sites and the balloon crew tries to evaluate the feasibility of the sites.
"They are the pilot's eyes on the ground," Leisek explained. "Power lines, irrigation, type of crop, livestock, fences, gates, road access, and hospitality are a few concerns the crew will try to identify."
As part of the initial evaluation, the ground crew tries to contact the landowner with very little time before the balloon arrives.
"They're knocking on doors before breakfast and possibly while you're still in jammies," he said. "It's a bit awkward but we are trying to respect the fact that we are about to trespass on private land and would much rather have you come out and participate than to be angry at us."
If the crew responds with a positive report, the pilot comes in low, does a final evaluation, and lands; at least that's the textbook version.
What usually happens is a bit different, according to Leisek. "Crew makes contact, field is perfect, landowner is all excited with their kids bouncing all about, pilot comes in low, catches a strong unexpected right hook and the whole process starts over in fast forward down the way with only minutes to the next landing site."
Pilots are trained to deal with landowner relations and minimize their impact on private property. "Our crews are often assembled by the event organizers and are your neighbors," he said. "The pilots have radio communication and are very conscientious about respecting your property."
Pilots realize that spectators are following the balloon and are there because of the excitement that has been generated through the magic of ballooning, he said, "which happens to be why we have been invited to participate in the Collage of Culture."
Leisek pointed out that pilots try to keep accompanying vehicles on established roads, and identify safe crops to land in to avoid damaging crops, and to protect their balloons.
"We recognize that it's a sleep-in day and we have you out of your home before breakfast," Leisek said. "And we recognize that you are a very key element in the ballooning experience in which Jefferson County could not experience the magic without you."
Most balloon flights occur at sunrise because of the calmer winds. "Often this is just prior to feeding time and livestock may have a tendency to become a bit nervous," he said. "If a pasture area is feasible, the animals don't seem to get as nervous. Early feeding and or your presence also helps to calm corralled livestock."
Pilots have different burning techniques they will use if they see that livestock are becoming anxious to help settle them down, Leisek added.
If the balloons are drifting your direction, he recommends greeting them and identifying yourself to the crew.
"Help them identify appropriate landing areas and areas they should avoid," he said. "Include your family and friends. Many landowners plan an early breakfast with friends on the back porch as the balloons approach. If conditions are right, the pilot will often give tethered rides to the family."
Be sure that the pilot has your landowner certificate and information for this year's drawing.
"Remember that this is a social event and you are a critical element in the event," Leisek said. "The pilot wants to shake your hand and thank you for your hospitality. The Collage of Culture committee wants to thank you for allowing the magic of ballooning to be a part of cultural celebration."