School children at Washington Avenue Elementary School watch a hot air balloon prepare for flight. (Mark Wilson Photo)
The air is a crisp 37 degrees as the sun starts to illuminate the grassy field of Washington Avenue Elementary School. In preparation for the Old Timers Balloon Rally, the hot air balloon team of AirRageous has come out to demonstrate the inflation and launch of a 60-foot tall, 57-foot wide hot air balloon that, when completely inflated, holds 90,000 cubic feet of hot air.
Don Boyer, the owner of the balloon, has been a pilot for 23 years, but on this day, his trainee and retired Air Force colonel Kelli Ballengee will be piloting AirRageous.
Ballengee has been flying since February, and with 15 hours of fly time, more than enough to meet the Federal Aviation Administration requirement of 10 hours, she is almost ready to get her pilot’s license. She has passed the written exam and awaits the check ride, a flight with an FAA examiner that also includes an oral exam.
After years in the Air Force “she’s finally earning her wings,” Boyer said enthusiastically.
As Ballengee hits the burner for a first test, the kids scream with joy and then burst into giggles.
“I love that!” Ballengee exclaimed of the kids’ reaction. “They are just so excited.”
The kids all beg to help, so the team puts them to work helping to drag out the balloon and unfold it in preparation for inflation.
“The awareness (of setting up a balloon) is good and fun,” said on-looking mother Chrystal McClain. “(The kids) have a blast, and it’s different. It’s not something they get to do all the time.”
As the balloon reaches the final stages of inflation, the smell of propane swirls through the air. The heat of the fire from the burners warms the outstretched hands of all the children who have now gathered around the balloonists.
“I like to see it go up in the air and get smaller and smaller and then come down and get bigger and bigger,” states third-grader Chiara Torres. She and her friends stare with wide eyes and cries of wowed excitement as the balloon finally stands upright.
With the kids’ attention, Boyer takes the opportunity to educate.
“The first beings to fly in a balloon were a sheep, a duck and a chicken,” he explains. “And the chicken is still flying today,” he adds, holding up a rubber chicken that’s attached to the balloon. The adults watching get a bigger laugh out of this than the kids.
AirRageous, along with around 60 other balloons, will fly at the 26th annual Old Timers Balloon Rally today and Sunday around 6:45 a.m. at Cielo Grande, 1612 W. College Blvd.