According to rules established by the Federal Aviation Commission, hot air balloons aren’t allowed to fly at night.
But there is no rule against lighting them up after the sun goes down.
After a steady 10 mile-per-hour west wind kept eight hot air enthusiasts grounded at Grimes Field Saturday afternoon during the the Champaign County Balloon Fest, Mother Nature took a breather just after sundown, which allowed five of the balloons to be inflated and literally set aglow, all without leaving the ground and to the delight of the hundreds of spectators who lined the infield.
The balloons were also set aglow on Friday evening.
Balloonists won’t wander into the wild blue yonder in anything stiffer than an eight-mile-per-hour breeze, so with gusts up to 17 miles per hour all day at Grimes Field, the balloons were kept packed away, because even mild gusts can turn a grounded 100,000 cubic-foot hot air balloon into a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade nightmare. But after fretting all day about the west wind and the high temperatures (colder air equals better ballooning), the organizers cracked a collective smile when both the gusts and temps relented after the sun set, allowing the five balloons to do their thing without the interference of the weather. Even with the diminished wind gusts after sundown Saturday, spectators were recruited to hold down the gondolas after the balloons were inflated lest they be swept onto U.S. Route 68.
Once the decision was made to go ahead with the “glow” show, the balloonists expertly unpacked their envelopes – as they are called – got them up and running, so to speak, in about 20 minutes. The pilots get as much air as they can inside the nylon envelopes using industrial fans, then use tandem propane burners – which can generate up to a whopping 40 million BTU (British thermal units) to heat the air inside and make the balloon, gondola and any passengers lighter than the surrounding atmosphere, giving all three lift. Once aloft, the pilot can then use the burner in spurts to maintain altitude.
It is these monster propane burners which power the after-dark glow. With the balloons all properly inflated to an upright position and the crowd assisting with the countdown, all five pilots hit the burners at once, using about 200 million BTU to light up the envelopes, Grimes Field and the appreciative crowd alike.
While the breezes and warm weather played havoc with the balloons, both were a boon to visitors who took advantage of the beautiful weather to pack Grimes Field for the show. The vendors were seen to be doing a brisk business for the better part of the afternoon, as did the Airport Cafe.
Also providing a lot of wows on the day was the Champaign Aviation Museum – where one could see a beautiful restoration of a B-25 (a similar model of which was used for Doolittle’s Raid in World War II), sit in the cockpit of a C-47 transport or watch a few volunteers literally building a B-17 Flying Fortress. Columbus resident Jim Sokolik, a U.S. Army vet who makes the drive over from Franklin County to volunteer at the museum, said they have been at it for the past 12 years and if it takes and dozen or so years to complete the project, so be it.
“It’s not really a restoration project, because we’re not restoring anything,” Sokolik said. “We’re building this from scratch.”
The volunteers got the original blueprints for a B-17 from the Smithsonian Institution on microfiche, converted them back into paper copies for all to see, gathered all of the the necessary parts, pieces and equipment that went into an original Flying Fortress and are going about much like they did back in 1944 when Boeing was churning these out at the rate of about 17 per day. On Saturday, a group of five volunteers was working on Engine Three, which will eventually be affixed to the starboard wing. No time table has been set.
Event Coordinator Elton Cultice said all of the proceeds from Saturday’s gate will go toward next year’s Balloon Fest, which was last conducted at Grimes Field in 2012.
Tom Stephens is a regular contributor to this newspaper.