60 balloons light up Page sky during regatta

(Times photo - Krista Allen)

By Krista Allen
Western Agency Bureau

PAGE, Ariz., Nov. 7, 2013

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(Times photos – Krista Allen)

TOP: More than 20 hot-air balloons illuminated South Lake Powell Boulevard on Saturday night during the 11th annual Page-Lake Powell Balloon Regatta.

BOTTOM: Nearly 60 hot-air balloons in all shapes and sizes took to the sky last week for the 11th annual Page-Lake Powell Balloon Regatta.

A swarm of aeronauts gather for the pilot briefing at the regatta fields where Bryan Hill, the balloon-meister, is standing in the back of a pickup. A man with a clipboard, dressed in a white Elvis jumpsuit is front-and-center.

To determine the morning's wind speeds and directions in the atmosphere above, Hill releases a black pibal (short for pilot balloon), a helium-filled balloon, that the pilots watch keenly for several minutes as it wafts upward, receding into the distance and becoming a mere speck in the sky.

Dawn breaks over the horizon, shell pink and faintly gold.

"It's great to be alive again," says the Elvis impersonator with pompadour hair and gold glasses.

Several members of the rally line up for pictures with the King of Rock and Roll.

The pilots disband, and stride purposefully with their crew and passengers across the field toward their trucks.

Nearly 60 colorful, hot-air balloons in all shapes and sizes took to the sky for the 11th annual Page-Lake Powell Balloon Regatta this past weekend.

Among the pilots is retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Armstrong who (along with his wife, Susan) traveled from Goodyear, Ariz. to participate in the annual regatta. A crew follows him to his Ford truck, which stows his hot-air balloon and its equipment.

It's a five-minute drive to Quality Inn where Ric Simon's crew is setting up his zigzagged, bulbous hot-air balloon, dubbed "Simonsez."
Fortunately, there's enough room alongside of the fuchsia, blue, and yellow hot-air balloon where Bill Armstrong parks. His crew descends from the truck.

Another pibal is released since pilots are almost never happy with just one.

The quartet (three whom have volunteered) then moves with industrious speed, enthusiasm and focus in prepping "Band of Gold," Armstrong's 2009 Lindstrand AX-8, 90,000 cubic feet hot-air balloon.

Meanwhile, Jim Ahern's semi-bulbous hot-air balloon, dubbed "Missing Link," along with others, float by like clouds.

Within approximately 30 minutes, Band of Gold and its passengers are airborne. The landscape 800 feet below gathered itself from the dark and showed a pale gleam of town.

With a twist of the valve on the propane burner, Armstrong sends a blast of fire up into the balloon, heating the trapped air.

The colorful bag of hot air rises higher in the sky. However, balloonists aren't allowed to fly over the Colorado River and the Glen Canyon Dam nearby.

"The dam and everything in general proximity to it is restricted," said Armstrong, who has been involved in ballooning for more than 17 years. "If you fly across, there's very limited access to recover. It's best not to."
Hot-air ballooning is considered a bona fide sport, certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, that dates to 1783 when two Frenchmen climbed into a wicker basket suspended from the base of a fancy paper-lined cotton balloon. Filled with air heated by burning straw, the first untethered manned balloon carried the men aloft for more than 20 minutes over Paris, leaving a profound impression on the world.

The best way to explore the unique landscape here is by riding a hot-air balloon at sunrise, when the winds are much calmer. Astonishing views of the Aquarius Plateau, J‡d’ T—, Lake Powell, Naatsis'‡‡n, and Tower Butte are sights not to be missed.

Aeronauts from the region flocked to the Regatta Fields along U.S. Highway 89 last week for the four-day balloon rally, which attracted enthusiasts from the neighboring Diné communities.

The balloon regatta started on Thursday with Education Day, a program that several of the balloonists took part in to teach students in the Page Unified School District about how hot-air balloons work and how they fly.

The regatta continued on Friday with a mass ascension, in which all the brightly colored balloons lifted off in waves during Media Flight Day, and peaked over the weekend at the street fair on the Elm Street Mall parking lot where there was a biergarten, live music, and games.

Among the renowned hot-air balloons was the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation balloon piloted by Bill Lee, an avid pilot from Gallup.

More than 20 balloons illuminated South Lake Powell Boulevard that evening during the mesmerizing balloon glow.

The balloon regatta ended Sunday morning with a Crew Appreciation Day.

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