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O#39: Sioux Falls, South Dakota
OJune 14, 2008


Sioux Falls is a city of some 140,000 people, located in the eastern part of South Dakota. It is located in Minnehaha county, which in the language of the Dakota Indians means "waterfall."



A little-known fact about Sioux Falls is that it is home to dozens of casinos -- perhaps outnumbering even the casinos of Las Vegas, at least on a per capita basis. These small businesses are located in strip mall storefronts and shopping centers all over town. Tuxedoed men and women in evening dress playing high-stakes baccarat are notably absent; inside each of these establishments are the same state lottery video games, with alcohol or sometimes food for sale. The curious visitor wonders how there can possibly be enough business for all of these casinos. Are the citizens of this small metropolis, to all appearances upstanding, God-fearing people, in secret thrall to Lady Luck -- to the adrenaline rush of risking everything on some random turn of events?



I had a chance to learn the answers to those questions when I was first invited to fly at the Great Plains Balloon Race in 2006. Putting on hot-air balloon festival is a kind of gambling proposition -- betting that the weekend of the event won't be rainy or windy, and that months of planning and the work of dozens of volunteers will not go down the tubes. Organizer Scott Christensen mentioned jokingly that their race had historically faced some challenges with respect to weather. I laughed this off initially, taking it as the kind of boasting people all over do about how unpredictable or rapidly-changing their weather is. I was surprised when I learned that in two of the three prior years the race had been totally rained or winded out.

Balloonists are persistent people, but those kinds of statistics would make even the most dedicated think about giving up, or holding a ping pong tournament instead. I asked if there was some other time of year when the weather was any better, and Scott said yes, on average, the weather later in the summer was a lot better for ballooning. However, the June date was traditional, and attempts to change it were resisted by a number of the local balloonists. So, with a haggard kind of optimism, they continued to bet each year on the unsettled June weather, and more often than not got their clocks cleaned.



The 2006 race turned out even more challenging than usual. On the Friday when the balloonists were arriving for the event, most having driven in from other parts of South Dakota or out of state, the weather was so obviously windy and rainy for the weekend that Scott canceled the event. He sent everyone home on Saturday morning, with an invitation to a make-up event in August. It was an unprecedented and audacious solution, but itself something of a gamble, and unfortunately the weather was bad again in August. So instead of just one failed event that year, they managed to have two.



In 2007, I was invited back to try again. Scott was still under a cloud for his failed bid to cheat the weather gods of their rightful victory, so responsibility for the race had passed to Susan Scott. The Saturday morning and afternoon flights were cancelled due to wind. Sunday morning at 4 AM all of my crew volunteers met, but there was a bit more wind than I liked. We waited half an hour, but the wind did not drop off and the local NWS meteorologist, himself a balloonist, said there was a chance of thunderstorms. Having to make the call by 4:30 if I was to have any chance of getting the inflation done in time to fly, I decided to cancel. As things turned out, the wind died off at sunrise and thunderstorms did not materialize until late in the morning, so I was able to sit and watch the hot-air balloons fly. I tried hard to feel happy for them.



In 2008, I was ready for my third try. Of my 38 prior States of Enlightenment flights, 33 had gone off on the first try; only 4 (Ohio, Illinois, Virginia and California) had taken a second year, and only one (Texas) had taken three years. So, depending on the outcome this year, South Dakota would either be tied for worst, or in a league completely by itself.

This time, the forecast started out early in the week looking very favorable for a Saturday morning flight, but by the time my crew chief Larry Vandenberg and I arrived in Sioux Falls Thursday evening, it was looking less good. On Friday, Steve Parezo, who had volunteered to coordinate my flight, helped us with all our preparations. That afternoon, winds gusted up over thirty mph. At the reception for the balloonists on Friday evening, Brad the balloonist meteorologist explained that our chances of flying in the morning all had to do with whether the winds were "coupling" or "decoupling". That was Greek to me, other than a feeling that the weather seemed to be coupling with my plans pretty briskly. In any case, the practical upshot was that it would probably be blowing 6 to 8 mph in the morning, which would be very marginal for me, or possibly higher, which would be impossible.


Susan Scott, who was in charge of the race again, offered me some words of encouragement: "You're doing this, right? Right! We're not getting up at 4 AM again."