Balloon competition comes to Columbia

Saturday, August 25, 2007 | 8:37 p.m. CDT; updated 12:12 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Bill Clemons opens the blast valve, sending a propane-fueled fireball into his hot air balloon on Friday at the Columbia Balloon Invitational. Clemons, who owns a ballooning business in Des Moines, Iowa, named this balloon "Color My World" after a Chicago song that he and his future wife danced to at his high school prom.

COLUMBIA — In a colorful display of friendly competition, Columbia’s skies enjoyed the presence of 35 hot air balloons this weekend, competing in the Columbia Balloon Invitational.


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Ability took precedence over elegance and beauty for this event, which began its first round of competition Saturday morning.

Success in this competition hinged on the ability to drop a colored lead-filled packet the size of a fist on a target.

Depending on the altitude of the balloon, this target can be hundreds of feetbelow. Called “tasks,” competitors go up in their balloons and follow GPS systems to pre-determined targets. When they are over a target, they attempt to drop their packetson the center of the target. There are usually anywhere from one to four targets in a competition and score is based on accuracy.

While competition is important for many, others simply take the event as an opportunity to enjoy a hot air balloon ride. When asked what his favorite part of the competitionswas, Deon Frank from Orlando, Fla., said, “Hanging out with other balloonists.

“No pilots or any of the competitions that I go to are particularly competitive. It’s a lot more fun, and I like it that way,” said Frank. Originally from South Africa, Frank is an ex-technical support employee for MU who originally learned how to pilot hot air balloons when he lived in Columbia.

Frank is not alone in his enjoyment in being around other balloon enthusiasts. Michael Oberman, a pilot from Queens City, Mo., came to Columbia not to fly his own “Black Diamond” balloon but to simply be a part of the camaraderie among the crews. “Every weekend you can go to a balloon rally somewhere in the U.S.,” Oberman said.

Columbia resident Chris Hawley is a member of Oberman’s crew, and he described ballooning events as being “very social.” He also sees these rallies as opportunities to catch up with friends from other crews, some of which he only sees a few times each year. Hawley also talked about the competitive edge that surrounds these rallies. Despite their competitivenature, he said that crews still help each other with their pre-flight preparations.

Still, there are many in this competition intent on succeeding and getting a high score in the hopes of getting invited to another event. Each task carries a total of 1000 possible points. The person getting closest to the target earns 1000 points while each other contestant accumulates points depending on their proximity to the target. The closer one gets to the target, the more points they acquire. Penalties can be assessed for any number of rule violations, but they are a relatively rare occurrence.

According to the Columbia Invitational Web site,, there are several different types of tasks and their inclusion into an invitational is usually based on the level of competition. The pre-determined tasks are generally much less complicated. These relatively simple tasks range from the traditional dropping of the marker onto an X to the more complicated Multiple Distance Double Drop, which includes dropping one marker in a given designated area and dropping another marker in a different designated area. The contestant with the closest distance between markers earns the most points. Involved in this year’s contest was the Key Grab, a task awarding the first to grab a key off a 10- to 20-foot pole with any range of prizes. This is the only task that rewards speed.

“We fly mostly for fun,” said Karen Mountain, crew chief for her husband, pilot John Mountain. The Mountain family has several motives for its participation in the Columbia Invitational this year. During the months of January and February of this year, the Mountains’ son, Kyle, was in the Intensive Care Unit at MU Hospital.

The nurse who took care of their son did such an outstanding and wonderful job that the Mountains wanted to thank and repay her by coming to Columbia and taking her up in a hot air balloon ride.

“She helped us so much. Even when he wasn’t her patient anymore, every couple of days she would find him and make sure he was doing okay and find us to see if we were doing okay,” said Karen Mountain.

While part of the Mountains’ motivation for flying this weekend was gratitude, the Riley family participated because of tradition. Jared Riley is a member of the Goldfish Balloon team, and he said that he’s been around hot air ballooning his whole life. This passion stems from his family. His father, Theron Riley, is the pilot and owner of the Cherry Bomb, which also competed on Saturday. Riley’s brother, meanwhile, is the pilot of the Goldfish balloon, which is owned by Gary Whitby, one of the event’s coordinators.

Because hot air balloonists fly on the whim of wind, they have almost no control over their lateral movement. To go in the right direction, they must elevate or lower their altitude to reach a wind current that matches the desired direction. Wind is layered, so each altitude carries with it a different speed and direction. Finding that ideal layer is the most difficult part of hot air ballooning.

Currents take a backseat, however, to the importance of being aware of thermal columns. These hot columns of air are produced when the sun heats surface air, making it less dense. The lighter air then rises, and it is replaced by cooler air that creates contasting downdrafts. This is why most balloon competitions don’t start after 8:30 a.m.

Gary Moore from Lake Havasu, Ariz. has an additionl task. His balloon is shaped like a tree.

“Because of the shape of my balloon, it makes it very difficult to get up and down with the wind. At Centralia, Illinois last week, I ended up in ninth place out of 45,” said Moore.

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