#6: Wausau, Wisconsin
July 10, 2004




The city of Wausau is located in central Wisconsin. The city was originally called "Big Bull Falls", but happily was renamed "Wausau", the Chippewa Indian word for "far away place". Wausau is home to a large insurance company (Employers Insurance of Big Bull Falls) and about 40,000 people. The surrounding countryside is home to many cows, and is also a major center for the cultivation of ginseng.

Ernie at the train station




Christine Kysely and Steve Woller

The Wausau Area Balloon Rally takes place in early July and is the brainchild of local businessman and balloonist Steve Woller. When I got in touch with Steve early in the year, he expressed interest in having me do a cluster flight at the rally, and said he would try to find a sponsor for me.

The sponsors who Steve found for me were the Ladies of the Full Moon, a local women's group devoted to taking over local bars and restaurants on full moon nights. Steve assured me that these events were social and generally peaceful. The head Lady, Christine Kysely, asked if I could fly with pink and black balloons, to match the group's colors; however, the choice of colors in giant balloons being somewhat limited, we settled for 5' pink and 7' white balloons, in a kind of polka dot pattern. Christine assured me that the Ladies would show up at 4:15 in the morning to inflate my balloons and send me on my way with the hot-air balloons at sunrise.




When I set out in my truck for the three day drive from San Diego to Wisconsin, the weather forecasts for the day of my flight called for a chance of thunderstorms, which caused me some worry. However, each successive day, the forecast got better, until the day before the cluster flight, the forecast was calling for sunny conditions the following morning. Ernie and I laid out all the supplies and equipment in an hangar at Wausau Municipal Airport. Back at the hotel that evening, I was looking forward to a great day for flying.


Unfortunately, when I arrived at the Wausau Municipal Airport at 4 AM, there was a low cloud ceiling and fog. The Ladies of the Full Moon (and selected gentleman friends) arrived at 4:15 AM to help with the inflation, but after some consultation with Steve, we put the inflation on hold until we could figure out if the fog would burn off early enough to do the flight. An hour passed, and the fog and low clouds seemed to stay about the same. I consulted with Christine and Steve. Steve wasn't sure if it would burn off in time to fly; however, Christine said she couldn't promise that we would have enough volunteers to inflate the balloons if we waited until the evening flight. So, we began inflating the balloons.

Steve and I discuss the weather




The inflation went smoothly, but the weather did not improve. When the hot-air balloons arrived at 5:45 for the pilot briefing, Steve put the balloon launch on hold. At this point, the cloud ceiling dropped even farther, obscuring the top of nearby hills, and the wind came up.

Finally, after an hour, it was decided that the balloons should just do a short hop across the airport grounds for the spectators, but no real flights would be allowed. It was a disappointment, but there with conditions the way they were it would be dangerous to fly, as well as illegal. So, not altogether happily, we put the cluster together to get ready for the show.



I joined the hot-air balloons out in front of the spectators. Ernie and the other balloon chase vehicles positioned themselves across the field to intercept the balloons. Because I did not want to accidentally shoot up into the clouds, I had my crew release me while I was still not quite neutrally buoyant, and began dropping more water ballast as I ran along, to avoid being dragged by the wind. My strides grew longer and longer as I grew lighter and the wind pushed me along, until finally I was flying a few feet above the ground -- at which point I was out of space, and Ernie ran up to grab me. All the other balloons were pulling down beside me in the rising wind; none had gone more than a hundred feet in the air.

And that was that, it seemed. States of Enlightnment, Wisconsin: 30 second flight, 2 feet maximum altitude.




However, there was still a slight chance that I might salvage something from this. The balloons I use are porous, and like a toy balloon, lose their helium lift over a relatively short time out in the wind and sun. However, I had use of an air conditioned aircraft hangar, so possibly the balloons might still have enough lift for a flight that evening, once the clouds had broken and the winds had calmed. I had never tried anything like this before, but it seemed to be worth a shot.

So, my crew strapped me in the back of the truck and we drove slowly back to the hangar. We attached all the balloons to sandbags, and put them inside the hangar.


At that point, all there was to do was wait. Possibly the balloons would still be buoyant enough to lift me and a safe amount of ballast when the winds calmed down enough to fly that evening -- I'd never had to do this before, so it was hard to guess. I knew that if left outside in the wind and heat all day, the balloons probably wouldn't be in very good shape -- but in an air conditioned hangar, maybe they would be OK. Of course, even if the balloons survive, we were still counting on the weather to cooperate for the evening flight.

At 10 AM, the clouds burned off and the day was finally sunny, as originally advertised. Ernie and I went back to the motel for a few hours, and I took a nap.


At noon, there was a pig roast luncheon for the balloonists down at the airport, in the hangar where my balloons were. The balloons still seemed to be in good shape, and made interesting albeit expensive decorations.

We went back to the motel. I sat around my room, occasionally calling the airport to the check the winds. Steve managed to dig up another helium cylinder for me, which combined with the spares I had would allow me to inflate add twelve fresh balloons to the cluster that evening.

It was a long afternoon.