By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Jack Way and his wife, Pink, were well-loved in the hot air ballooning community.
Jack, with his oversized moustache and boisterous personality, was the organizer and driving force behind the “Wild West Balloon Fest” that occurred annually in Cody for 19 years.
But as insurance costs rose and interest in ballooning fell, the Cody hot air balloon event fell with it, ending in 2015.
Soon Jack’s health began to fail, as well, and he passed on last year.
But a handful of dedicated balloon enthusiasts are determined to bring back the festival that Way founded – which is why the “Wild West Balloon Fest: Jack’s Way” is being “launched” this weekend from Mentock Park in Cody.
REBOOTING A CLASSIC
“This is something this community did for 20 years. We couldn’t just let it go,” said organizer Marci Bernard, who grew up in Greybull, just 53 miles east of Cody.
When she was a small child, it was Way who introduced Bernard to the magic of hot air balloons during a street festival in her hometown.
“He was doing tethered rides on Main Street down there. And so I thought it was really cool.”
Last year, during a hot air balloon memorial rally for Way, Bernard went down to Mentock Park to take pictures and ended up crewing and riding the whole weekend.
“When I said, ‘I gotta get this going again,’ one of our pilots, Mark Williams, and his wife, Rebecca, are like, ‘Go for it,’” Bernard said. “‘We’ll support you in any way.’”
The William’, from Longmont, Colorado, have brought one of the three balloons that make up this rebooted version of the Wild West Balloon Fest.
Mark Williams, who used to be a fixed-wing pilot, said his wife’s enthusiasm for hot air balloons eventually won him over.
“She’s the one who got me slowed down into LTA (Lighter Than Air),” Williams said. “But, I can park the trailer in the front yard, I don’t have to have a hanger for it. I just don’t go quite as fast.”
Williams’ bought his balloon, named “Bubbles” (named after a departed friend who loved hot air balloons), just a few years ago, although he said his wife has been an enthusiast for many years.
He said that while rallies are enjoyable, they prefer to send up “Bubbles” in locations where people who might not otherwise get to see the balloons can enjoy them, such as the parking lots of childrens’ clinics or outside long term care centers.
“When we bought (our balloon), that was the mission,” Williams said. “To take it to those who can’t necessarily come to us.”
Bob Kross has attended nearly every one of the Wild West Balloon Fest rallies since its inception.
He told Cowboy State Daily he got his balloon license in 1996, just a year after first being introduced to the world of hot air balloons.
“Somebody asked me if I wanted to come out and crew for them,” Kross said. “And had a fun time, and they asked me to crew a second time, and at that point, the pilot said, ‘Get in and go for a ride.’ And I’m like, I don’t like heights.”
The irony was, Kross said, his occupation is as a flight nurse on airplanes and helicopters.
“And we turned around and took that flight,” Kross said, “and five seconds after we’re off the ground, I’m looking over going, ‘My God, this is so cool!’”
Kross has brought his balloon, “Morning Manna,” to Cody from his home in Rapid City, South Dakota all these years, not just because of the location – because of the people, too.
“I came to Cody because it was a challenge to fly here at the beginning,” he said, “and then I came back for the family and friends I made – the Wilders, the Ways, the Jensens.”
Kross said every time he takes his balloon up, it’s a thrill. “I love flying, and so every flight for me is a great flight,” he said, “and when I get to share it with somebody it’s even better.”
Kross explained that hot air balloons are steered by the wind, but trained pilots generally know how to use the wind to their advantage.
“The wind goes different directions at different elevations,” he said. “And that’s kind of how we pick and choose, because otherwise we’re considered an unguided aircraft.”
Williams explained a bit about how pilots have a general concept of where the wind will take a balloon.
“It gets warm in South Dakota first, because the sun comes up there first,” he said. “So (with) the cool air coming off the top of the mountains to replenish that column of warm air going up, we’re going to get an easterly breeze out of here 90% of the time.”
Williams said the afternoon winds will most likely take balloons west because of the cooler air coming from the Black Hills towards the warmer desert air – but there are times when the balloons don’t go where the pilots intend.
“All of this weather stuff that we do on a regular basis so that we can have an idea how to maneuver this thing can all be changed if God says, ‘Yeah, but you’re going to Nineveh, boy!’” Williams said, explaining that he has had several experiences where his balloon hasn’t landed where he thought it might.
“I was down there in Longmont (Colorado), going east, I’m looking right at the parking lot (where I was going to land),” Williams said. “I’m going right to it like I have so many times, I hit the middle of the interstate, and I’m right over the top of the highway and – dead standstill. And then the wind changed and all of a sudden, it’s ‘Okay, so what’s over here?’ Because we’re doing 20 miles an hour west.”
Kross’ balloon carries two 20-gallon propane tanks. He’ll use one full tank in an average flight to give the balloon lift.
He said the highest he’s ever flown has been at an elevation of about 9,000 feet – but his balloon can fly as high as 14,000.
“(I was) 6,000 feet above the ground in Rapid City,” Kross said of his highest flight. “I could see clear over the Black Hills.”
ENJOYING THE CHASE
Others in the ballooning community would prefer to stay on the ground.
The people who volunteer to “crew” for the balloon pilots have to follow the path of the balloon and anticipate where it’s going to land, so they can pack up the basket, burner system and “envelope,” as the balloon itself is called.
Mary Jo Hibschweiler and her husband used to own the balloon that’s being flown at the rally by Pat Newlin from Riverton – but Mary Jo said she has more fun chasing the balloons than flying them.
“Chasing is more fun,” said Hibschweiler, who said she enjoys interacting with the spectators. “Because you get people, ‘Oh, wow, it’s so cool!’ or ‘I was just out having my coffee’ or ‘Out for my morning jog.’ They just think it’s cool.”
There are those who aren’t fans of hot air balloons, however – farmers and ranchers whose livestock are spooked by the large objects moving towards them, or landowners who have had negative experiences with chase crews trespassing on private property to retrieve balloons that have come down unexpectedly.
And Kross explained that there are other ways in which balloonists can get cross with those on the ground.
“People on the ground can hear us very easily, because we’re moving at the same speed as the wind,” he said. “So if you comment about somebody in a mumu out back of their house watching, they can probably hear you.”
THE FUTURE OF “JACK’S WAY”
Bernard said although this year didn’t garner a huge response, she’s hoping next year will bring more balloons to Cody.
“Unfortunately, we’re overlapping with Montana,” Bernard said. “Billings, Montana has their Hot Air Balloon Festival this weekend, and that’s kind of why we have lower numbers. But next year, we’ve already got it booked for the weekend after Billings, and so hopefully, we’ll end up with a lot more balloons.”