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Balloonists take to skies after delayed flight Saturday for 2023 Animas Valley Balloon Rally

Weather watch lifted around 9:15 a.m. after gusts calmed
Pilot David Koenig, explains the operations of filling his hot air balloon the Blue Loon to Lauren Harwood, 15, as Paul Koenig, left, and Dave Harwood hold it open during the Animas Valley Balloon Rally on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, north of Durango. Lauren hopes to one day pilot her own balloon. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Twenty-eight pilots were registered for the 2023 Animas Valley Balloon Rally, and many were out on Saturday waiting for ideal weather conditions to occur before taking to the skies from Hermosa Meadows.

A weather watch, due to low-blowing gusty winds, delayed the departure of balloonists from Hermosa Meadows, which usually begins between 8 and 8:30 a.m. But by 9:17 a.m., the first balloon, named Nerfer and piloted by Mike Bertetto, had left the ground, and more were quick to follow.

Keith Takach, a balloonist of 23 years, pilots his balloon, named Takach Another Breeze, and regularly visits Durango for the annual Animas Valley Balloon Rally.

On Saturday, Takach watched a pi-ball – a small balloon released into the sky to gauge wind flow and speed – before determining if he was ready to fly.

“There was a fast layer (of wind) to the southeast there. Now it’s climbing back up and it’s swinging back more down south in the valley,” he said. “We’ll probably still wait a few minutes. Now it’s getting a little gusty on the ground again.”

He said conditions improved around 9 a.m., and he was optimistic the weather would continue to improve.

Takach said he attends the balloon rally every year. He loves ballooning because every flight is different.

Colorful balloons sail past colorful trees on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, during the Animas Valley Balloon Rally north of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“No two flights are the same. Just the people – it’s a good group of people,” he said. “We enjoy flying first-timers. Lots of smiles on everybody’s faces.”

Karen Converse, who pilots the black and pink balloon named Penumbra, said she likes to describe different atmospheric layers as a stack of pancakes.

“You have different layers at different heights that go different directions and different speeds,” she said. “And so usually, early in the morning you get drainage from a higher (altitude), and so that cold air kind of rushes down the valley. As the sun heats up the valley, it will either calm the winds or push faster winds down. So we’re just kind of watching to see what the sun will do.”

In other words, weather conditions were all up in the air Saturday morning.

“We’re kicking dirt. You just kind of see which way the wind is going. And we’re just waiting to see how things go,” she said.

She said it’s not so much the launch that is worrisome with gusty winds, but the landing. The faster winds are flowing, the more room a balloonist needs to make a safe landing.

She said some pilots are more comfortable flying in windy conditions than others. For Converse, if the wind did not die down, she planned to tether her balloon at Hermosa Meadows and put on a show in the field.

Colorful balloons sail past the colorful trees on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, during the Animas Valley Balloon Rally north of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

But conditions did improve, and although Converse was one of the last balloonists to launch Saturday morning, she did ultimately take to the air.

Converse has been a hot-air balloon pilot for three years, but she grew up crewing and flying with her father.

She said ballooning is great because crews become family members, and being up in the air provides a sense of serenity and calm because a pilot’s attention has to be on piloting.

Spectators used all types of cameras to photograph the Animas Valley Balloon Rally on Saturday north of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“You can’t let other things intrude. So there’s kind of a release and just a reset being in the sky and seeing the world from a different perspective,” she said.

Deb Young, pilot of the balloon named Road Trip, has been flying 26 years. Preparing her balloon for lift off, she said even though Friday and Saturday were breezier than usual, she had a nice flight on Friday.

“This is the perfect season to fly because you have the change of colors in the valley and it’s gorgeous,” she said.

Young was at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta last weekend. Before that, she attended events in Arizona and in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Next month, she’s taking her own road trip to Mexico for more ballooning. And she’s previously traveled to Europe for balloon shows.

“We’re really happy that we’re here, and this is one of my favorite places to fly,” she said.


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