Hot-air aviation experiences a ‘rebirth’ as the Snowmass Balloon Festival takes off
For the Aspen Times Weekly
You could say hot air ballooning is on the up and up, lately.
“It’s on a rebirth, if you want to call it that — it is getting more popular again,” said Tim Cole, who has been catching air since 1977.
That was also the first year he attended the Snowmass Balloon Festival, then in its second iteration; he participated in the town tradition for more than 30 consecutive years and returns this year after a decade-long hiatus to fly “Red,” a vessel with a color that befits the name, at the three-day event running Sept. 10-12 in Town Park.
About 15 years ago, the field went into what Cole calls a “recession;” he isn’t entirely sure what sent interest in a dwindling direction but suspects it had to do with a “need to have immediate gratification.”
“People like to have enjoyment right now, they don’t like to go out and buy an expensive piece of equipment, and then not be able to use it just because their time and weather wasn’t compatible,” Cole said.
But for the last five years, however, Cole has seen the pendulum swing back in the other direction — hence that “rebirth” he described.
“This is what’s exciting: We are seeing more growth, we’re seeing a lot more women pilots, and younger pilots are getting into it also,” he said.
Cole himself entered the hot air balloon field after a stint in military aviation, but anyone can start on the track to lighter-than-air flight by getting involved on volunteer crews and learning about the field at festivals like the one in Snowmass Village this weekend. So what changed?
From the ground, the vessels floating through the skies above the Roaring Fork Valley this weekend may not look all that different from balloons that flew back when Cole was just getting initiated in the field and the Snowmass Balloon Festival was just taking off in the late 1970s.
What: Snowmass Balloon Festival
When: Sept. 10-12 (Balloons launch daily from 7-9 a.m.; “Night Glow” takes place Friday from 7-9 p.m.)
Where: Snowmass Town Park
More info: gosnowmass.com
But over the last 40-odd years, hot air balloons have gotten more efficient, more technical, more high-performance, Cole said, which also makes more adventurous routes possible.
And as rural communities have become more developed, transforming once wide-open landing and launch sites into built-out neighborhoods, the resurgence of ballooning in recent years has also resulted in pilots finding new routes, launches and landings that can add to the excitement factor, Cole said.
“People are finding new locations to fly (where) it’s a lot more fun,” Cole said.
Not that it ever wasn’t fun. It’s a collegial group that often gathers at balloon festivals, and friendly competition in “rat races” adds another layer of shared experience. (One such race, heading downvalley from Snowmass Village, will depart around 7 a.m. Friday, Sept. 10.)
“There’s a lot of enjoyment with the camaraderie, the people going out and experiencing everything, and everybody has a different experience of the flight, and you like to share it, when they have competition,” Cole said. “It’s always kind of fun to have bragging rights as to how good your results were in the competition, and so it’s a lot of people that are there at the same time and enjoying the same experience.”
Doing well in such a race takes some strategy at takeoff; once in the air, there’s an extent to which “you’re at the mercy of the winds,” Cole said. But that’s part of the excitement, too.
“I love the ability to fly at a lower altitude to where you can really, like you’re on a magic carpet, and that sensation stays with you, and you go at a slower pace, and every flight is an adventure,” he said.
Quite the statement from a pilot with a stacked resume of truly adventurous flights: Cole has logged flights across continents and oceans, set a world record for the longest solo flight in an ammonia-powered balloon and built the vessel that took pilot Steve Fossett on the first solo flight around the world.
It was a natural transition to longer-distance ballooning from shorter flights, Cole said. As an insurance man by trade who was looking to expand his business, he got to chatting with some transatlantic adventurers who hadn’t previously thought to insure their trips across the pond for any damage that might occur.
“They were asking me about getting insurance for some of their projects, and I ended up knowing more about what they were doing than they did, and so I was invited to be part of their team,” Cole said.
That crew successfully completed a transcontinental flight from San Francisco to eastern Canada, following the St. Lawrence Seaway; after some technical advancements, the team made their first attempt on an around-the-world flight out of Luxor, Egypt, he said. (Cole also built the Spirit of Freedom, a solo vessel in which aviation adventurer Steve Fossett completed the first-ever solo around-the-world flight in a balloon; the capsule from the Sprit of Freedom is now in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.)
Ventures like those around-the-world and limit-pushing flights occupied his time for the last decade or so. But there’s still plenty of excitement in returning to balloon festivals like the one in Snowmass, where Cole will reconnect with the ballooning community and with the landscape of the Roaring Fork Valley.
He has flown from Newfoundland to Germany, from San Francisco to eastern Canada, and all around the skies above his home base in Greeley, where he has lived since 1960. But Snowmass, with its mountainous scenery and hills that shape the direction of the wind, remains “one of the most spectacular places to fly,” he said.
“You’re actually flying in the hills, in the mountains — that just adds a lot more excitement,” Cole said. “And sometimes people use the word thrills, and that almost sometimes implies a risk-taking, but it’s not (a risk). It’s just gorgeous. It’s peaceful. Everywhere you look, you’re surrounded by the magic of the mountains.”
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