Scenic Ottumwa

Downtown Ottumwa and the Des Moines River are seen beyond a tree line as a ballon flies over Ottumwa Friday morning.

OTTUMWA — No two flights are alike. I learned that Friday morning as I lifted off on the media flight as part of the Ottumwa Pro Balloon Races.

I took a ride seven years ago and had the opportunity to go up again this year. I was partnered with the same pilot, Bill Clemons. That’s about where the similarities ended.

As the pilots stood in Ottumwa Park, gauging the pre-flight conditions, I milled around. Nothing in the weather indicated to me that the flight wouldn’t take place — the conditions seemed perfect. As it turns out, while things were calm on the ground, higher up in the atmosphere the air was moving at a good clip. That’s why I’m not a pilot.

The decision was made to go ahead and fly, but I was warned the landing might be rough. My first ride was what balloonists call a “dream landing.” It didn’t sound like that would be the case Friday. “I can take it,” I thought, while at the same time, despite having done it before, wondering what I had gotten myself into.

Then the real preparation began. Crews began pulling out baskets and balloon envelopes to prepare the craft for flight. This was a change from the previous flight I’d taken. When I flew before, we left from a private residence on Blackhawk Road and landed in the park.

That wasn’t possible Friday, I was told. The winds would make it too tough to get a clear landing in the space available there.

Once the balloon was inflated — something that is an entire process in itself — I climbed into the basket as gracefully as I could. I was told there’s really no graceful way to do it, but I did my best. Then it was time to lift off.

Bill and I flew across the highway. I asked where we would be landing. “Wherever the wind takes us,” he told me.

Slowly, I began to adjust to the balance of the basket. Each little shift of weight seemed to have an effect on the entire basket. It was nerve-wracking at first, making my gut drop, but that effect evaporated as the ride glided through the air.

Ottumwa was quite a sight from above. Once we got past the highway and the river, it was a sea of green. Seeing the river from above was quite mesmerizing, and I enjoyed watching the other two balloons that lifted off make progress ahead of us and behind us.

As we flew, I got some interesting information from Bill. He said that each balloon gets inspected every year. “They look these over just like a 747,” he said, and each pilot goes through a certification process.

Heating the balloon

Flight is adjusted with the use of heat, powered by the flames created by propane tanks inside the basket.

The balloon we were in was a special creation. He told me the craft had been specially designed for two people to handle. Each part weighed no more than 60 pounds, allowing two people to carry the parts — the envelope, the basket, the tanks — with limited weight if needed.

In fact, I found out after landing, it was only the craft’s third flight — and the first with a passenger.

Bill was enjoying his Friday morning. Despite the competition weekend barely being underway, it was his last chance to fly during the event. “I’m the balloon master,” he said, meaning he’ll be staying on the ground making the calls about flights depending on conditions.

With the conditions above, we stayed pretty low to the ground, hovering around 400 feet. Looking up my last flight, we got up around 1,500.

With the quick air in the sky Friday, we quickly made our way to the north part of Ottumwa. North Hy-Vee and all the other businesses along the highway corridor quickly came into view, and then they were gone. That’s when Bill started searching for a landing spot. He thought he found one, but the thermals took us out of range. Bill spotted one last spot before we crossed the highway and got taken beyond the bypass.

I packed my camera away, and he told me to hold on. “It’s going to be rough,” he said.

I grabbed support and hugged tight as the ground got closer. We hit ground, but we weren’t done yet. The balloon bounced back into the air for a few feet, and we hit ground again. I clung to the balloon and kept myself lifted close to the side of the basket as it settled to the ground. Once we stopped moving, I let go and exited the basket. Apparently I handled it very well.

The chase crew quickly found us and packed up the balloon. I helped carry the basket to the trailer as we discussed the flight, the landing in particular. “It’s not the dream landings you end up remembering and laughing about afterward,” Bill said.

Despite — or maybe even because of — the rougher landing, I’m glad I went. And it’s something I’ll probably do again if I ever get the chance. It’s so peaceful in the open air above the rest of the world, and the view is incredible.

“It’s amazing,” Bill said. “We’re grown-ups gliding above the world in a bag full of hot air. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy


Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's magazine editor, leading production of "Ottumwa Life," the award-winning "Business People" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.