States_of_Enlightenment.gif (4364 bytes)
O#18: Mancos, Colorado
OSeptember 24, 2005


Prologue: America the Bureaucratiful

The States of Enlightenment flight for Colorado was originally scheduled to take place over the Labor Day weekend 2005 at the Colorado Balloon Classic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Colorado Springs is a pretty town, located at the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, south of Denver. It's the place where Katharine Lee Bates wrote the lyrics to "America the Beautiful".

Since Colorado Springs is a bigger city than most that I have flown near, I told the festival organizers that before doing any planning, we should get permission from the FAA for my flight. Cluster ballooning is legal under the part of the FAA regulations known as FAR Part 103, but only for operations over areas that are not "congested" -- a subjective term that is not well-defined in the regulations. They were assured by their FAA contacts that my flight would not present any problems. Preparations continued, with my planned flight being widely publicized by the Balloon Classic.

However, the morning I was to fly, a more senior FAA inspector from the Denver office showed up at the Balloon Classic for a surprise visit. He had been informed of my flight, but evidently had not bothered to read any of his correspondence, and had not answered any of the phone messages left for him by the event organizers. At the very last moment, after all the helium had been used, and the balloons filled, he decided that my flight would not be legal in that area, and that if I took off, he would (as pilots call it) "violate me". So we deflated the balloons. Later, this heroic bureaucrat offered that if he could get his supervisor on the phone (on Saturday morning), and if his supervisor absolved him of all responsibility, he would allow me to fly -- but that was after we had deflated too many balloons for me to fly, and it was late enough in the morning that flying actually would be dangerous.

I respect the work of the FAA, and have worked successfully with FAA inspectors at many balloon festivals I've attended. In some instances, the FAA has decided that I should not fly in a certain area -- giving us their opinion when asked, months in advance, which I've always abided by. However, this was the first time I'd ever had the FAA arbitrarily change their minds at the last possible minute -- wasting several thousands of dollars worth of helium and balloons, travel time and expense, hours of preparation time from me and my crew, the efforts of 20 volunteers and all the organizational and promotional efforts of the Balloon Classic. It was the most infuriating, awful thing that has ever happened to me in ballooning, as well as probably the saddest. If they were a private company, you could sue them.....

So, taking a leaf from American history, what do you do when the "gummint" gets too big, and the public servants aren't serving anymore?

You head out West.....


Mancos, Colorado is located in the Four Corners area of Southwestern Colorado. It's an area where a desert plain gives way to green mesas, rising to the Rocky Mountains to the East. Native Americans once lived in the area in great numbers, building adobe dwellings high on the cliffs of nearby Mesa Verde. White settlers initially came to the area to mine for silver, and stayed to farm and raise livestock. Currently, the town has a population of about a thousand, merchants selling to the local ranchers mixed with artists and B&Bs for the tourist trade.


Bauer House Bed and Breakfast

Downtown Mancos


Mesa Verde

Cliff Dwellings


I was invited to fly at the first annual Mancos Valley Balloon Festival. The opportunity to fly there came via Bill Whidden, a balloonist and balloonmeister of some note. Bill is a cowboy, in the literal sense of being descended from many generations of cattlemen, as well as in his speech and choice of hats. Bill was balloonmeister for the new festival, and he suggested to the organizers that they might want to invite me. Bobbi Black, owner of the Bauer House B&B and chief organizer of the balloon festival, lent her support to this project. So late September found me headed to Mancos, where I was to meet my crew chief, Bob Dunnington, and my girlfriend Marj.

Bill Whidden, Bob Dunnington, John


Mancos High School


Elk Ranch


On my way up to the Four Corners, my truck was struck by lightning. This is actually much less dramatic than it sounds -- there was a flash and a loud bang, and then I was coasting over to the side of the road -- but it did thoroughly fry the on-board computer and necessitated an overnight stay in Gallup, New Mexico.

I arrived in Mancos a day later than anticipated, late in the afternoon on the day before I was scheduled to fly. Bob, Marj and I rushed through a day's worth of preparations in just a few hours, then turned in for a few hours of sleep.


At 6:00 AM the next morning, we headed from Bauer House over to the nearby park where we were met by a large and enthusiastic group of local volunteers. The inflation went smoothly. There was a little bit of "drainage wind" coming down from the mountain passes, but it was fairly mild that day, and we'd set up in the shelter of some trees to get some protection from it.




The 100 balloons seemed to almost glow as the sun rose above the mountains. I got into my harness, and crew attached the balloons to me. The hot-air balloons were inflated now, and Bill sent word that I should launch first.


Photos: Crystal Blake, Mancos Times