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Winds hinder balloon festival
balloon festival 2024
Bill, Charlotte and Stephanie Laska of Turlock got up early Saturday to attend the “Skies the Limit” Balloon Festival in Ceres and take this selfie in front of an inflating RE/MAX balloon (JEFF BENZIGER/The Journal).

Winds ranging from 12 to 20 mph grounded a number of hot air balloonists during Saturday’s “Skies the Limit” festival at Ceres River Bluff Regional Park. But the disappointment was broken when one balloon got off the ground to please the crowd.

Two balloons were inflated with hot air, dazzling thousands of spectators who were shooting photos with their cell phones and cameras. Some children were tickled as they brushed their hands against the billowing fabric as while parents took photos.

Two other balloons were partially cold inflated as a visual consolation for those who got out of bed early for the sight.

The winds may have cancelled all tethered rides for the public but the event featured a number of vendors selling food and other items. A car show was offered while Lavonne & the Train Wreck entertained.

At 7 a.m. – an hour after the balloons were supposed to launch – Sacramento pilot Dana Thornton seized on a lull to the winds and decided to give it a go, treating three Ceres High School students to a two-hour flight that carried the four about 22 miles to a field in Winton in Merced County.

“That was the highlight, seeing that balloon launch,” commented Joey Chavez, the city of Ceres Recreation Manager who was the festival chairman. “That made the day and what made it special was the three kids who won the art.”

Thornton – nicknamed “Boomerang” for his knack of being able to circle his balloon back to the original launching point at times –quickly readied for the flight. As a number of eager volunteers pinned the swaying basket to the ground, Thornton blasted flames from his propane burner into the center of the opening of his multi-colored balloon. As the balloon fully inflated it was buffeted by the winds, but the basket remained tethered to a vehicle as volunteers fought it still from yawing back and forth.

Ceres High School students Bianca Camorlinga, Martin Balanos-Aleman and Jared Avina were invited into the basket for the festival’s only ride after winning the art and poster contest used to promote the festival. At first the three believed it was only for a photo-op or at least a tethered ride. But Thornton surprised them when he asked if they wanted to go up and announced, “I’m taking off and I’ll be heading south.” Someone joked: “Fresno or bust.”

While it was still tethered, the balloon lifted high off the soccer fields and Thornton quickly disconnected the rope, and up it went quietly. The envious people on the ground craned their necks to watch the balloon drift over Eastgate and shrink into a speck in the sky to the southeast.

Thornton maintained radio contact with his ground crew to track his whereabouts and chased it to its eventual landing spot in a field near Winton.

The five balloonists knew conditions were iffy during a Friday evening barbecue they were treated to by the city. As word spread that conditions were spoiling things for the second annual event, Dave Wakefield of Sacramento and crew jumped into action and began unloading the basket and unfurling the RE/MAX balloon from the trailer and prepared to fill it.

Wakefield asked if the crowd had their cameras ready and counted down for a long blast of hot flame that elicited oohs and aahs from the crowd.

“Nobody is cold this morning,” he jested.

“Did anyone bring the marshmallows?” quipped granddaughter Kaylynn Wakefield, also of Sacramento, who assisted.

As her grandfather entertained the crowd by shooting bright flames into the dawn air, Kaylynn Wakefield reflected on why balloon festivals are so popular.

“It’s rare and unique – it’s not something you see every day,” she said.

After Thornton’s balloon left the park, Dave Wakefield remained in a basket tethered to a pickup, keeping the smaller 44,000-cubic-foot RE/MAX balloon aloft as he fielded questions from the curious crowd.

“When it moves the truck it’s too windy to fly,” he explained from his basket.

One visitor who was curious about where Thornton might land asked how much control pilots have in flight. “We have an idea of where we’re gonna go but we don’t know where we’re going to land until we get there,” he told her.

“I’ve landed on residential streets and in people’s front yard and I’ve landed in big fields – never had to deal with rattle snakes.”

When asked how high balloons go, Wakefield said he once reached a height of 10,066 feet over Redding. After struggling to spot Thornton’s balloon on the horizon, Wakefield assessed that he was at least 3,000 feet above the Valley.

Wakefield decided to bring down the RE/MAX balloon after explaining, “It’s getting harder to put the air in. The wind’s trying to push the side in like it’s a sail.”

The hobby is not without its mishaps. Last year a rookie balloonist who launched from the Ceres festival landed near Keyes and burned a hole in his balloon. That kind of damage can be repaired but it’s expensive.

Hot-air balloon fatalities are very rare but do happen, usually from drifting into power lines. According to 2022 data from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) since 1964 there have been 775 hot air balloon accidents on record in the country, 70 resulting in death.

Thousands of persons continued to stream down Hatch Road to the park after the only balloon floated off. Those who arrived before 5:30 a.m., like Jeff and Dottie Jo Crisp of Modesto, didn’t miss the brief action.

“We came last year for the first time and it was really cool, kind of a neat thing local,” said Dottie Jo.

Helping to monitor the wind data from the nearby Modesto Airport was pilot coordinator Melanee Scarborough of Stockton.

“What we do is monitor winds constantly and we’ve been we’ve been monitoring winds for the last couple of weeks – they’ve been really, really bad,” said Scarborough. “All we do is keep our fingers crossed and hope.”

Scarborough said strong pre-dawn winds came up at last year’s festival in Ceres but subsided as the sun came up, which is typical.

“I can’t launch unless we are sitting right around 5 or 6 mph. Gusts are sometimes okay.”

Scarborough noted that it’s always disappointing when the winds spoil an event.

“It’s disappointing to everybody. It’s disappointing to the city, it’s disappointing for our spectators but it’s disappointing the pilots too because this is what they love to do. They love to share their sport with everyone.”

Ironically, Scarborough, who is also the assistant director for High Sierra Balloon Camp, a hot-air balloon camp for teenagers, said she is “scared of heights” but her husband is a balloon pilot.

All five pilots who participated this year were from California, with one coming from as far away as Orland in Northern California.

“Our goal for next year is to have eight balloons that take off and two tethered,” said Chavez.

Hot-air ballooning is not a cheap hobby, said Wakefield. A new balloon and equipment can run $65,000, he said, but he expressed his appreciation that RE/MAX recruited him to fly their balloon and said “go make people happy and make us look good and I said, ‘I can do that!’ What a job!”

Scarborough said she and her husband participate in about five or six balloon festivals per year, including Sonoma, Montague, Cathedral City and Temecula.

The balloonists who turned out for the Ceres festival were treated to a barbecue dinner Friday night at the park and put up for the night in local hotels.

The largest festival in the United States is in Albuquerque, New Mexico where about 650 balloons participate. The one in Reno’s Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, set for Sept. 6-8 attracts about 80 balloons.

“It’s funny,” said Kaylynn Wakefield. “We’ll be out flying and we’ll land in a neighborhood very calmly, beautifully and all of a sudden you’ll see all the fire trucks and cops and everybody because someone said a balloon crashed. But there was no crash, just a beautiful landing.”