Montana

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#40: Billings, Montana
July 26, 2008

Montana is called Big Sky Country -- although this is not an official nickname, and the Treasure State, the Land of the Shining Mountains and the Last Best Place are also popular. In 2008, I was invited by organizer Dennis Waldron to fly at the Magic City Hot-air Balloon Rally in Billings, Montana.



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Billings, with a population of around 100,000, is the largest city in Montana. Billings is known as the Magic City, a name based on its rapid growth since its founding as a railroad stop in 1882. 
The small downtown area features five buildings over ten stories tall, including the Crowne Plaza (now Doubletree) which at 22 stories is the tallest load-bearing brick building in the world. There is also an outdoor sculpture called the Skypoint. However, most of the city consists of pleasant residential neighborhoods and industrial areas devoted to the agricultural processing and energy production.
The Yellowstone River skirts Billings to the southeast, with high bluffs and sandstone cliffs on the far side. Thirty miles north of the city is a large sandstone outcropping called Pompeys Pillar, so named by William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, whose signature carved in the rock in 1806 is the earliest evidence of white men visiting the area.
The Magic City Hot-Air Balloon Rally takes place at Amend Park, a large soccer complex. On the map it looked closer to the city center than I was used to flying, but Dennis told me that the local FAA was OK with my flying there so long as I did not fly into the airport at the north end of town. So in the too-early morning, we met at the soccer field to unload the helium tanks from our sponsor, Gases Plus.
The inimitable Ernie Hartt was there as my crew chief.
Festival volunteers and some of the hot-air pilots and their crew were there to help with the inflation.
Ernie fans in their distincitve pink hats were there to assist the famous crew chief.
The balloons were all inflated as the sky grew rosy in the east.
I got into my harness while crew attached the balloons.
I waited around a few minutes while the crew went to inflate the hot-air balloons. When they began to launch, I pulled my quick-release....
And up I went.
I was climbing out rapidly. I pulled down a balloon to be ready to cut it away if necessary.
Looking southeast across I-90 at the Yellowstone River from above Amend Park.
With the hot-air balloons.
It was amazing to watch the sun rising over the city below me.
After that initial ascent, I cut away some balloons to level out and descend to a lower cruising altitude. The lower winds took me northeast, farther into the city.
I flew along with Stan, one of the hot-air balloonists who came down from Canada to fly in this event.
I passed the Albertson's supermarket on Central Avenue.
I could see the railyard on Montana Avenue, and beyond that, the downtown area.
To the north were the St. Vincent Hospital complex (right) and the Montana State University (left), and farther on, the airport.
My track began to curve around toward the east.
I drifted past some residential neighborhoods and the Western Sugar Coop, and eventually crossed Interstate 90.
A short distance past I-90 was the Yellowstone River.

The advice from the local pilots regarding crossing the Yellowstone River was to come in close to the bluffs and float up low over the top, where the winds would generally carry you northeast towards Lockwood, a suburb of Billings built on the higher land above the river. I had a difficult time getting past the bluffs, popping up over cliff height several times but losing the wind to carry me past the bluffs into the area beyond. I finally managed to get up on top by going higher, but there the wind was heading in a more easterly direction towards a large, sparsely populated area without a whole lot of good roads.

I flew on. I could see a road crossing the land below me, but on the radio, crew reported that the road that seemed to lead in my direction had a locked gate.
Rather than fly even farther away from crew, I landed. Crew weren't clear on exactly where I was across the rolling terrain, but luckily I had a supply of large helium balloons that I could release to guide them in my direction.

Dennis had finished his own flight and met up with my chase crew to help find me. Getting out to where I was took about half an hour. I gathered up my gear and we hiked back out to where the chase vehicles were parked at the locked gate.

Then we went out to breakfast to discuss the morning's adventures in the Big Sky.

Celebration LVI

Crew Chief: Ernie Hartt

Special Thanks to: Magic City Hot-air Balloon Rally, Dennis Waldron, Gases Plus

Photography: Dennis Waldron, Stan Wereschuk, Bob Zellar (Billings Gazette), Rod Kimmet, Jack Hawkins, John Ninomiya