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#2: Newton, Kansas,
October 20, 2002
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Newton, Kansas is a small town located about twenty miles north of Wichita.  It has a sleepy downtown area, and quiet, tree-lined  residential streets.  Beside the railroad tracks is a massive white structure, like some huge Stalinist era monument, which visitors from the city must be told is a grain elevator -- a type of structure which, by mysterious mechanisms related to dust and spontaneous combustion, is prone to sudden, violent explosions.  Locals recount such explosions in other towns with much nodding and interest, as if the proximity of such a potential disaster adds a certain secret zest to daily life.  At the south end of town are a half-tenanted outlet mall, and crounched in the center of a huge black asphalt parking lot, the inevitable Wal-Mart. 


I was invited to Newton to do a cluster balloon flight at Balloons Over Kansas, a new balloon festival benefitting the Kansas Foodbank Warehouse.  Kelli Keller, the festival organizer, had seen me fly in Oklahoma City, and had decided that a cluster balloon flight would be a good addition to her event.  She prepared a suitable ID badge for me.

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My regular crew chief, Ernie Hartt, is now a school teacher and authority figure, no longer able to join me at a moment's notice for any harebrained thing I come up with.   This would be my first time doing a cluster flight without him -- and actually, without anyone I knew at all. 

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Chuck Powell, one of Kelli's balloon crew, had volunteered to be my crew chief.  I spent an hour with him and his son Aaron, explaining how my inflation equipment worked, and how the balloons were to be tied and rigged.  Chuck is an aircraft mechanic and a parachute rigger, which was reassuring to me.  However, as I explained how it worked, I realized that there were a lot of details to the operation that had developed by trial and error over the prior fourteen flights.  It was a lot to go over in one sitting.


A front was scheduled to pass through that weekend, with good ballooning weather not arriving until Sunday, if at all.  On Friday afternoon, the planned opening of the festival, the wind was gusting to thirty miles per hour, so the hot-air balloon flight was cancelled.  There was a dinner for the balloonists and their crews out at the airport, where we ate pizza and joked about what we'd do when the tent we were in blew away, which appeared imminent.   Back at the motel, I watched the Weather Channel.  The Saturday morning flight was cancelled.  In the afternoon, I went to the airport and got my sandbags and water ballast bags ready, and laid out all the equipment for the following morning.  The wind slowed down enough just before sunset to permit some of the hot-air balloons to launch for short, windy flights.

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By early Sunday morning, the wind had calmed down, as predicted.   I met Chuck and my chase crew at the hangar at 5:45, but only a couple of the other promised volunteers from the festival were there -- too few to get the inflation done on time.   I waited fifteen minutes, then had the people who were there get started.

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I was worried because my window to fly would be just after sunrise, which was a little before eight.  An hour or two later, it would probably be windy again -- which would mean either flying in marginal conditions, or scrubbing the flight.  Happily, the people who were there did a great job with the inflation, and more volunteers drifted in over the next hour.  We finished a few minutes ahead of schedule.

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Chuck helps me get into my harness.


Outside the hangar, the crew began attaching my balloons.

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With the cluster assembled, Chuck and my crew walked me out toward the runway where the hot-air balloons were, followed by a crowd of spectators.

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Chuck and Aaron Powell
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We waited until the hot-air balloons began to launch.  The wind was ideal right now -- calm at the surface, but moving smoothly to the north at a few hundred feet.  I asked Chuck to release my tie-down....


Kansas (Cont'd) ]