National Balloon Classic

Indianola, Iowa
August 1, 2009



Indianola, Iowa is a small town located south Des Moines. It was once a farming community, but today many of its residents commute half an hour through the farmland to jobs in the state capital.



Unlike most Americans, most balloonists are at least familiar with the name of Indianola. For many years, going back to the very earliest days of modern hot-air ballooning, Indiaola was home to the Nationals, where the U.S. Championship was decided. Dating back to that time, Indianola is home to the Balloon Federation of America's offices and the National Balloon Museum. After many years, the Nationals left Indianola for another site, but Indianola continued to host its own large balloon competition, the National Balloon Classic.



In 2009, I was invited by Executive Director Greg Marchant to fly my cluster balloon at the Classic, to help celebrate the 40th year of the Classic and its predecessor events. Greg asked me to do an afternoon flight, since the morning flights were more or less spectator-free. Talking to other balloonists, I heard that the afternoons were frequently windy in Indianola, which can be challenging for balloons in general and cluster balloons in particular. However, my comfort level with flying in somewhat windier conditions had increased over the past several years, so Marj, Ernie and I headed to Indianola.


Marjorie Walters


Afternoon on the first Saturday of the nine-day Classic I was down in the "honey hole", as the balloonists call it: a tree-sheltered spot down the hill from the main launch site for the event. The forecasts for the first weekend of the event had been all over the map, but had finally settled on kind of windy for Saturday and very windy for Sunday. Those being my two choices for flight dates, I had made my preparations for Saturday.

The wind was in the low teens and gusting higher, but in the shelter of the trees it was relatively calm. A sheltered area to set up is a mixed blessing. Normally, if it's too windy to fly safely, it's too windy to be able to do the inflation. A sheltered place to set up eliminates that nomal check and balance on my judgment. However, the weather forecast was for the wind to drop to 6 to 7 mph by sunset, so at 4:30 PM, I made the decision to start the inflation.


Marjorie Walters


It was generally calm, right up next to the trees, but every once in a while a cycle would come through, and my mostly teenage crew would have to hold on tight to keep the balloons from being ripped from their hands. When we began gathering the inflated balloons into the cluster, the highest balloons were pushed way over by the gusts. Finally, at about 6:15, the winds seemed to abate somewhat, to the point where I could get into my harness and hook up the rest of the balloons.


Marjorie Walters


Ernie and my crew began to walk me up the hill, toward the launch area for the classic. Before we were beyond the shelter of the "honey hole", I had them stop so I could adjust my ballast, knowing that once I was out in the wind, the false lift and the competing tendency of the wind to pendulum me down on the end of my tie-downs would make it impossible to know whether I was buoyant or not. I removed ballast up to the point that taking off one more bag would send me up to the end of my tethers.


Angie Kufner


Marjorie Walters


We continued up to the top of the hill. Two of my crew were behind me holding the two tie-down straps that came off my harness carabiners. It was windy. A few balloonists had pulled their baskets off their trucks, but no one seemed to be in a hurry to set up. There was a good-sized crowd over in the spectator area, listening to an announcer talk on the PA. Although from my perspective I could not see the cluster leaning over, the main suspension carabiners and the ballast bags which hang from them were a foot out in front of me, rather than above me and at my sides. Occasionally, the wind gusted a bit and all the balloons swayed and jostled, pulling at me.


Nicole J. Peterson