Balloonists launch in Grayslake, and go where the wind takes them
By Dan Moran firstname.lastname@example.org August 25, 2013 3:05PM
John Rucker of Wisconsin uses a propane burner to load up his hot air balloon, called Not Yet Named, during the start of the Color Aloft Balloon Festival in Grayslake on Saturday, Aug. 24. | Dan Moran~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 25, 2013 2:22AM
The decision about whether or not to launch a 150-foot-tall hot air balloon includes the latest in mobile weather apps but can boil down to a simple test: Observing what happens when releasing a 12-inch helium party balloon into the wind.
“That’s not the direction I was expecting,” Ken Walter of Waukesha-based Windancer Balloon Promotions said Saturday as he watched just such a small balloon head northwest. This wasn’t the best development with less than an hour to spare before the scheduled start of the inaugural Color Aloft Balloon Festival in Grayslake’s Central Park.
Weather forecasts from DuPage to Kenosha counties had the wind coming straight out of the south late Saturday afternoon into early evening, a direction that would send the event’s seven balloons due north to the open fields around Lindenhurst.
But northwest? Jim Grazier, pilot of Back Magic II out of Waukegan, pointed out that “you’d have about four and five miles and you’d be over the Chain.” With the balloons scheduled to take flight around 90 minutes before sunset, no one was looking forward to picking out a dry landing spot at dusk.
About a half-hour later, Mother Nature relented. The oak trees around Central Park fell silent, and Walter released a second test balloon that floated placidly to the north. “That’s calmed down quite a bit since last time,” he said, telling the assembled pilots to “do what you’re comfortable with and fly safe.”
And so it was go-time for an activity that participants describe as capturing a piece of the clouds.
“It’s peaceful. Very quiet,” said John Rucker of Genoa City, Wis., pilot of Not Yet Named, a balloon that kept the generic title handed to it at a 2009 rally.
Pat Klemens of Grayslake, a retired balloonist who piloted Sunrise Sunset for two decades, said “it’s absolutely dead silent up there except for when the burner’s on. You can have conversations with people on the ground.”
“Every other aircraft flies through the wind,” Klemens added. “The balloon flies with the wind. Once you take off, (if) I were to strike a match, it would be perfectly still. You’re part of the wind.”
Klemens also noted that with an owner’s permission, a balloon can take off almost anywhere, so Central Park’s football fields were more than accommodating. Village of Grayslake Trustee Bruce Bassett said Klemens helped organize the event after a random conversation at a party revealed their mutual interest in bringing a balloon rally to Grayslake.
“The idea is that it’s something new,” Bassett said. “We’ve never done one in Grayslake or the general area north of Lisle that I know of, and we thought it would be fun.”
After Walter gave the green light, a crowd estimated by Grayslake police at 4,500 watched as one crew after another rolled out their equipment, inflated the balloons with an industrial fan and then fired up their burners to take flight.
First in the air was a RE/MAX balloon piloted by William Baker of Cary, who was given a head start to go place a marker for the rest of the ballooonists to find. Next up was Deere John, flown by John Trione of Lake Geneva, followed by Grazier, who coincidentally was celebrating his 37th wedding anniversary with his wife, Heather.
With the crowd applauding every takeoff, the program proceeded with In Harmony (helmed by Nick White of New Berlin, Wis.); the aforementioned Not Yet Named; Pengwind (Kelly Neill of Naperville); and Stellar (Jim Neill of Riverwoods).
In the end, the field made it up to Antioch, where Trione was the first to not only spot Baker’s giant red marker but hit it with a yellow tag. Rucker came in second, followed by Neill.
The beauty of the competition, said Bassett, is that the finishing order was “determined almost completely by the wind.”