Nothing keeps Kenny Bradley on the ground for long. Not even a wind shift causing a tree to punch three holes into the envelope of his balloon Thursday morning. Bradley didn’t panic, and gently landed the balloon in a field, flying over a pasture filled with cows to nestle on an area between parcels of land near Highway 26.
After landing, he gave his chase crew some directions and hoped there was a road nearby. Crew members helped pull down the balloon, named New Directions, and load it into a rust-spotted trailer plastered in stickers from all over the country and others with slogans such as “I (heart) Aardvarks,”
Hot air balloons are a symbol of whimsy with kaleidoscopic colors and funny shapes. Bradley said in order to fly, pilots need to know about fluid dynamics, the landscape, and how the weather will affect all of it. Other times, a pilot just needs the necessary force to drag a balloon across a field — a crew.
Conan and Sharon Ferguson from La Salle, Colorado, crewed for Bradley for just over a year and a half, while James Huper from Scottsbluff has been doing it for several years.
“I just love it,“ Conan Ferguson said on the ride back. “I’d be sleeping otherwise, so I’d rather be here.”
Bradley delivers lines with a straight face, often will crack a smile at his own puns or dad jokes.
“It was cheap to get in, you’re all going to have to pay up to get out,” he said as the balloon soared off the ground.
Like most balloon pilots, he’s got a story. His late wife bought him a balloon ride for a birthday in 2009.
“She didn’t pay attention to where the pilot said to meet, and, unfortunately, we missed the balloon ride,” he said. “My birthday was in March and she passed away in July, so I never got my balloon ride.”
Bradley, who lives in Ault, Colorado, and works mainly as a machinist and welder, did some repairs on a man’s balloon trailer. The man made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Now, he’s got 311 flight hours under his belt.
“I’ve just bought my fourth one (balloon),” he said. “Some people got a ballooning problem, I’ve got a balloon problem.”
His passengers, including crew volunteer Sylvia Ebner, retired nurse Minnie Ybarra and her 15-year-old grandson Sammy Mobly said the experience was a blast.
“I felt like it was an amazing adventure with fantastic views,” Ybarra said. “So fun to be able to share this experience with my grandson.”
Bradley will be soaring high Saturday, with a friend bringing up another envelope from Colorado.
The first competitive flight for the nationals qualifier started Thursday morning.
The rankings as of Thursday afternoon, for the first task: in first, Bruce Wood from Colorado. In second, Jonathan Wright from Arizona; third, Bret Christian from Iowa; in fourth, Cheri White from Texas; fifth, Joe Seymour from Iowa.
The final rankings will be available Sunday.
Old West Balloon Fest Executive Director Colleen Johnson said food vendors, merchandise and even a bar will be available at the Mitchell Airfields on Friday and Saturday. Admission is free.
“Come out, have fun, come watch the balloons tomorrow, the Old West Balloon Fest pilots will take off and then the competition flyers will fly in,” she said.