The Ottumwa Courier

June 23, 2013

View from the ground

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA -- Pilot and passengers say the view out of a hot air balloon can be spectacular from the air. But veteran chase-car drivers will tell you that they've seen some interesting things on the ground, too.

At the 36th Annual Ottumwa Pro Balloon Races, most views this year had to be enjoyed from ground level.

"There were three competition flights we wanted to do," said Dale Dommer, one of the organizers. "We did not get any of them in."

None of the balloonists or crew members (the people who help assemble, recover and break down the balloon) seemed terribly disappointed Saturday and Sunday.

"We go to races all over," Dommer said, "with the knowledge we might not get to fly. We may fly every flight, none or somewhere in between. It's part of the life of being a balloonist."

Pilot Mike Hadley of Richland said ballooning happens about 50 percent of the time. He went traveling around one year where he and his wife were able to race 17 out of 19 times. But that's not typical. Averaged out over the years they've been flying, they expect about half their flights to take off.

"We did get to fly two nights. We cancelled the competition portion but we did a fun flight," Dommer said Sunday.

During the fun flight, there was a goal. Brandon Bloom of Indianola, sponsored by Hy-Vee, flew across Church Street toward Ottumwa Park. Below him was a kiddy pool. The crowd went wild when he successfully dropped his rubber duck into the water. And with the night glow and the fireworks display, said Dommer, the park was just packed.

That type of support comes from area residents who weren't at the event, too. Kelly Maxcy of Des Moines, said property owners in and around Wapello County were typically kinder than those in other areas.

Her husband, crew chief Dan Maxcy, said that's actually one of the reasons balloonists like to fly in the Ottumwa area.

"People are usually gracious if you have to land [on their] property," Dan said. "Around here, though, they are even more gracious."

Kelly said crews usually try to get permission before a balloon lands on a farm. While hot air balloons are not precision aircraft, good pilots and crew members typically have a fair idea of where the balloon will be going. The chase crew will follow the balloon along. There are typically a minimum of two people in the car. The driver and a spotter. Having only one person to both drive and look up through the windshield wouldn't be safe, Dan said.

But in the 27 years he's been crewing, Dan said, he's seen the effect the house sized floating Easter eggs have on motorists.

"They should pull over to the side of the road if they want to watch," he said. "It's much better than driving down the road with their head out the window."

Another crew member asked if he had seen that type of thing.

"A few times," Dan answered. "I've seen people watching out their windshield drive into ditches."

Balloonists have learned to be safe. Which is why they were just sitting and visiting on Saturday while other balloonists tossed a football around in the large field near the Jimmy Jones Shelter. This is one of the few pastimes that truly teaches patience said Dan. He and his wife recalled the little daughter of a pilot, who asked if being on the crew was that thing where you sat around waiting all day. Seems like it at times, some crew members said.

"Our pilot," Kelly summarized, "has told us, 'I'd rather be on the ground wishing I was in the air, then in the air, wishing I was on the ground.'"

To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark