COLUMBIA — At nearly 7:30 a.m., Gary Whitby, one of the organizers of the Columbia Balloon Invitational, made an announcement to the crowd of more than 100 balloon team members and volunteers huddling against the morning chill.
“We will be flying this morning,” he said.
The go-ahead came an hour after the scheduled 6:30 a.m. launch, a significant amount of time because balloons can only fly in the hours just after sunrise and just before sunset, when there are fewer columns of hot air that cause turbulence.
Before sunrise Saturday, a morning flight seemed unlikely. At 6:05 a.m., thick gray clouds completely concealed the sky, and only one light shone in a tent on the competition field. Crickets chirped, but not birds. Corporate Lake rippled with the force of 10 mph winds, the maximum windspeed at which pilots can safely take off.
After being put on “weather hold” by the event’s coordinators, balloon crews lifted their baskets slowly, without a sense of urgency, out of pick-up trucks. Others leaned on trailers stamped with bumper stickers reading, “I’d rather be flying,” “I love flying,” and “I chase balloons.”
At 7:15 a.m., the time scheduled for the official competition update, volunteer Carlton McCarty said, “With the breeze the way it is and the clouds like this, it doesn’t look too promising.”
But expectancy filled the damp air.
Back under the VIP tent at 7:30 a.m., when Whitby announced the competition would begin, some remained skeptical.
“It just seems so windy. You might end up in St. Louis,” said a crew member standing in the back.
Even Vicki Fogue, another event coordinator, questioned the conditions.
“It’s kind of windy,” Fogue said. “I thought it was going to get better and better.”
But with wind speeds reported at a safe 7 mph and the cloud-cover ceiling lifted to a flyable 1600 feet about ground level, crews pored over their course maps and set out for the launch site.
As Jeremy King, a pilot from Winterset, Iowa, said, “It’s nice to be up and floating.”