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Kanab hot-air balloon festival flies

As the sun rose over the Vermillion Cliffs of Kanab last Friday morning, a crowd of hot air balloon pilots, event organizers, volunteers, sponsors and spectators waited in suspense to see if the weather would permit a hot air balloon flight on the first morning of the 2017 Balloons & Tunes Roundup.

One of the 43 hot air balloon pilots in attendance was Eugene Clewley, a retired machine tool mechanic who traveled from Phoenix in hopes of flying his balloon at the event.

Clewley wasn’t the only pilot who traveled from out of state for this event. Balloonists from Oregon, California, Arizona and more were present, along with their family and crew members, patiently waiting for the weather to change.

“Every morning you’ll find us out here,” Clewley said. “Even if it’s blowing the houses down, we’ll be out here standing and waiting to see if the weather breaks.”

“Gene’s Dream” is the name Clewley chose for his balloon, “because my first flight, I dreamed of having a balloon and I finally got one.”

Fifteen years ago, when Clewley was 60 years old, he was invited by a friend to crew for a hot air balloon. After just one flight, he was hooked and two years later he had purchased his own balloon.

Today, Clewley is part of the Arizona Balloon Club, along with several other attendees at the event.

As he patiently waited for a sign that would tell him whether or not it was safe to fly, Clewley recalled one of his greatest adventures in the balloon. He was flying in Durango, Colorado, at a higher altitude than what he was used to. After misjudging his landing, Clewley said he splashed down into the Animus River and had to float along in the water until they crashed into the bank.

As he told his story, Sally Heinrich, a fellow member of the Arizona Balloon Club, joined Clewley to laugh and even finish the sentences of the “Splash and Dash” tale she had evidently heard before.

The two balloonists periodically checked radar apps on their cell phones for information about the weather, while simultaneously looking for cues in the sky.

When a small red helium balloon began floating upward, Clewley and Heinrich immediately shifted their full attention to the balloon as it floated farther and farther away. To the untrained eye, this balloon may have gone unnoticed, but the two seasoned balloonists recognized this important indicator as a “pie ball,” a test balloon that reveals the wind direction at different elevations, a crucial piece of information for all hot air balloon pilots.

Clewley explained that balloonists are only able to control up and down movement in their balloons, while left and right movements are controlled by the wind. When the balloon flew straight toward the canyon nearby, every pilot understood the dangerous situation they could be placed in if they attempted a flight in these conditions. This, in addition to the slight rain drizzle which could cause mildew on the hot air balloon, forced pilots to come to terms with the unfortunate reality that they would not be attempting to fly on that day.

Brian Hill, the “balloon meister” and organizer of this and many other balloon events around the country, called for the attention of all attendees to give a pilot briefing once the decision had been made.

“Most pilots know that when the windshield wipers are going on the way to the pilot briefing, you understand that you’re not going to be flying,” Hill said. “So why don’t we fly? Number one, you saw the balloon go out to the north. That’s not a good direction ... Number two, we’ve got a lot of energy coming in. Number three, if you fly with a rain going on a balloon envelope … then you tend to boil off the coatings on your fabric and damage the aircraft.”

As pilots exited the launch location, they were disappointed but hopeful that the following two days would provide better weather. Unfortunately, the scene repeated itself on Saturday and Sunday, much to the dismay of pilots and attendees.

Robert Dockstader, a sales associate for Basin Energy Services, drove with four of his friends from their home in Centennial Park, Arizona, hoping to see the balloon launch. After the flight was canceled, the group of friends began searching the internet for alternative activities in the small town.

Fortunately for Dockstader and other attendees, the Balloons & Tunes Roundup offered much more than a balloon launch, and though the whole event was held outside in the unfortunate weather, the rain didn’t stop hordes of people from attending each activity. Participants enjoyed browsing the street market, snacking on food from various food trucks and street vendors and listening to the battle of the bands competition under a tent.

Lucy Diaz Paredes, Cedar City resident, said her favorite part of the event was the live music and “yummy” food, but she enjoyed the whole experience.

“I didn’t expect the festival to be so much fun,” Diaz said. “The music, food and people were just a whole other level of fun.”

On Saturday night, the balloons lined the street, and though the weather would not permit them to display the colorful balloon envelopes, they stood in their baskets and burned their flames, lighting up the entire street.

During the grand finale of the event, as the first-place winner from the battle of the bands played in the background, participants released hundreds of paper lanterns into the sky and watched them disappear into the darkness, signaling the end of the festival.

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