Monument Valley plays host to hot air balloon event

<i>Diego James Robles/NHO</i><br>
Crew members of Moonshine, a Salt Lake City balloon, and Macneal Crank, executive chef of The View Hotel (center) attempt to rescue the balloon from a small cedar tree on April 2. It took the crew and those of other balloons an hour to free it.

<i>Diego James Robles/NHO</i><br> Crew members of Moonshine, a Salt Lake City balloon, and Macneal Crank, executive chef of The View Hotel (center) attempt to rescue the balloon from a small cedar tree on April 2. It took the crew and those of other balloons an hour to free it.

MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah - All went well for World Premier Balloon Event at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, at least for the first morning. The hot air balloon event, the first of its kind in Monument Valley, was hosted by the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department on the weekend of April 2-3.

Windy conditions on Friday afternoon and all day Sunday made it impossible for ballooners to launch and for some spectators to even leave the comforts of the gift shop.

The lucky ones who came out early Saturday morning saw 15 pilots, crew members and local residents scatter across the Navajo park in search for a desirable place to launch.

Each team launched small helium balloon, the kind you see floating away at parties and weddings, to gauge flying conditions.

"They are launching pilot balloons to see where the wind is taking them. And if they don't go up, we don't go up," stated balloon enthusiast and owner of Racy Madame balloon, Cookie See.

However, each balloon and its crew eventually left the ground and playfully hovered above the spectacular buttes. Unfortunately for many spectators, what makes the park so beautiful also made seeing the spectacle difficult.

"I can't see many [balloons] because of the rocks everywhere," a laughing Jacues Frenette said with a heavy French accent. "I don't understand why they don't fly at the same time. You only see one or two instead of many."

Most of the balloons only flew for an hour to an hour and a half before the air around them began to warm up and the winds to pick up. Hot air balloons use propane fueled flames to heat the air inside their balloons. Since warm air is lighter than cold air, the balloons rise. As the air becomes warmer towards midday, liftoff becomes more difficult.

As the giant balloons began their descent, pilots were concerned about their landing locations. While many wanted to avoid landing on private land, many more were against blocking the roads during their landing.

And then there was Moonshine. The Salt Lake City balloon owned by Don Stockley landed on a small cedar tree. It took an hour of hard labor from the crew and those of other balloons to free it.

"I really didn't do much. It was the guys up in the tree," stated Dalina Castellanos, a local reporter and part of the Moonshine crew.

In the end, the balloon was rescued with only minor damage thanks to a local freelance photographer who climbed the tree and tore off its branches one at a time. He then freed the balloon at first with a broom and then with the aid of a ski pole.

By early afternoon the park was crowded with a large group of French tourists on open-air tour vehicles and American families in minivans and four-door sedans.

"They told us our minivan couldn't handle the road conditions but we made it just fine," David Y. Parker said of the tour guides. Parks was with his family on the way back to Denver after visiting the Navajo Nation for several days. "I think they just wanted us to ride with the French [tourists]."

As the winds began to pick up and throw sand in every direction, the roads began to clear and day surrendered to night. Many spectators gathering outside the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department building were given the bad news. The "balloon glow," which had been scheduled for later in the evening, was cancelled due to high winds.

"I don't think it's too windy," a disappointed Linda Yazzie of Crownpoint, N.M. said. "My kids were waiting all afternoon to see this and now they are not going to do it."

As disappointed pilots and crew members gathered to speculate about the next day's flying conditions, many could not help but notice the beautiful sunset.

"Red sky at night, sailor's delight," a Skywalker balloon crew member said referring to Sunday morning.

Unfortunately, Sunday morning turned out to be even worse than Saturday. The winds were stronger than ever and the event ended up being cancelled altogether.

"We didn't want to cancel anything but [the] winds reached 50-60 miles per hour and it needs to be less than 12 miles per hour to safely fly," said Geri Hongeva, media representative for the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department.

"I think it was successful because people did get to see balloons on Saturday and above all, the pilots and guests were safe," Hongeva concluded.

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