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Flustered, blustered and burned

1575557

The pilot and crew of a balloon called O’lough struggle to hold the gondola at Balloon Fiesta Park on Friday morning. Wind blew the envelope into the burners. (Celia Raney/ABQ Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Some days are better than others for hot air balloon pilots.

They do a lot to keep themselves, their crews and onlookers safe, and for one balloonist that meant taking the hint after his envelope was burned and melted Friday when a gust of wind swept across the field.

Fred Peek’s brightly colored balloon, O’lough, was just about upright when the wind “dished” the balloon and blew the opening into the flaming burners. With a nod to his crew and a few sighs, he decided to call it a day.

“It was probably an indication that I shouldn’t be flying anyway on that day,” Peek said. “Something could have happened downwind.”

When deciding when to fly, pilots look at many variables, the wind being a big one. Blustery skies caused officials to cancel Thursday morning’s mass ascension and subsequent evening glow, and heavy fog kept balloons on the ground on opening day. Last year, wind was also the culprit in cancellations of the Thursday special shape day, and in 2017 it forced the cancellation of two events during closing weekend.

Peek and his crew were inflating in line with four other balloons, two of which didn’t finish before packing up.

“I glanced over to my right and I noticed the other pilot had pulled out,” he said. That’s when his crew started having trouble controlling the throat, or bottom opening, of O’lough.

Just a few seconds too late, Peek told his team to reel it in.

“I burned, and then I just made the decision that no I wasn’t going to go, it was just too windy,” he said.

Normally, Peek would shell out $600 or more and haul his balloon to be repaired before the next event, but he said he’s planning to get a whole new envelope in a couple of weeks.

Sadly, his ’80s-ski-jacket reminiscent balloon won’t be inflating for the last two days of Balloon Fiesta.

“It’s very disappointing because the next two days look like they’re going to be great for flying,” Peek said.

Several other balloons chose not to launch Friday morning, opting instead to chill out on the ground and watch competition flyers try their luck.

The flight determining flag remained green all morning, allowing any and all crews the opportunity to launch, but Balloonmeister Henry Rosenbaum said that choice is always left to the pilots.

“We’ll give you the conditions and we’ll tell you the field is open,” he said, but “every pilot has to make their own decision.”

The Balloon Fiesta weather teams meets at the field at 3 a.m. each day to start monitoring current weather and creating a forecast for the morning events.

They use a wind profiler to monitor surface level and higher windspeeds and directions over the field, and send up the yellow flag when speeds are sustained at more than 11.5 mph.

“That doesn’t mean 12 mph is unsafe,” Rosenbaum said. “It just means we don’t want to put this many balloons in the air when we have winds that are 11 1/2 miles or greater and we know it’s going to stay that way.”

Friday’s mass ascension saw speeds around 8 and 9 mph over the field, and up to 13 mph close by.

“We use the ones on the field, but the wind conditions could be different even three miles away,” Rosenbaum said.

Forecasters predict Saturday and Sunday will make for great ballooning days with low temperatures and light winds.

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