LEWISTON — Soupy weather makes for dangerous hot air balloon flying. That much is clear.

The Great Falls Balloon Festival canceled its third planned launch Saturday morning, and then, later in the day, its fourth.

According to Freedom Flyer pilot Mark Fritze of Tallahassee, Florida, the overcast conditions came with a host of hazards, leading to the cancellation of the launch. 

“So much goes into it. Some people don’t quite understand how sensitive they (balloons) are,” said Fritze. 

On a normal launch, an inflator fan pushes cold air into laid out, flat fabric. As the balloon inflates, the fan throws literal flames into the fabric, and the hot air rises. The balloon expands into shape like a gigantic beach ball. 

“It’s amazingly simple and simply amazing,” said Fritze. 

Generally, Fritze said, flying isn’t dangerous unless the balloon is caught in cross winds. During inclement weather, the real danger is landing. A sudden gust of wind could take hold of the balloon and lead to disaster. 

 “It’s a big, gigantic sail on a little tiny boat. The sail’s gonna win,” said Fritze. 

Hot air balloons are restricted to visual flight rule conditions. Balloon pilots need 1,000 feet of visibility above the closest object. Due to the low cloud cover, Saturday morning conditions were instrument flight rule, which means only advanced aircraft with navigational capabilities are allowed to fly. 

“If we get up into that and there’s another aircraft in the air, they (planes) are not going to see us. And that’s a recipe for disaster,” said Fritze. 

Rain can also damage the fabric of the balloon. Fritze decided not to chance damaging his balloon called the “Freedom Flyer,” adorned with 13 stars — representing the 13 original colonies — over a print of the preamble of the United States Constitution. 

Fritze had hoped conditions Saturday night would be clear enough for the scheduled 6 p.m. launch. It was not meant to be, however.

“We’re going to watch that weather… I didn’t drive all this way to stand on the ground,” he said.

 


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