Balloonists soar over the Gila Valley

Photo By Rebecca Johnson: Balloonists prepare to lift off at the inaugural Gila Valley New Year’s Balloon Extravaganza on Thursday morning.

By Jon Johnson

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald

SAFFORD – A bevy of hot-air balloons filled the Safford sky on Thursday morning with the kick-off of the inaugural Gila Valley New Year’s Balloon Extravaganza. 

At least 13 balloons lifted off from a field at Ruth Powell Elementary School on a crisp winter morning. While the weather was chilly, once inside the basket with the flame of the burner so close it was quite pleasant.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: The AZ Air Ventures team gets their balloons inflated.

The event will have daily launches between 6 – 8 a.m. (weather permitting) from Ruth Powell through Sunday and will have a Balloon Glow on Friday at the Mt. Graham Municipal Golf Course and on Saturday in Pima at the Vard Lines Memorial Roping Arena and soccer fields, both from 6 – 7 p.m. The rest of the launches will have at least 16 balloons. The pilots are all experienced, having flown at various festivals throughout the country.

The extravaganza is a collaborative effort made possible by the Graham County Chamber of Commerce, local sponsors, and our local balloonist company, AZ Air Ventures

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Three black streamers are attached to the basket in Memorium of balloonist Andy Richardson.

The launch began with a moment of silence as the initial ballon had black streamers attached in memory of Andrew “Andy” Richardson, a balloonist enthusiast who had signed up to participate in the event but died from an illness on Nov. 15. Richardson owned and operated Adams Balloons, one of the largest balloons manufacturers in the U.S., and is well-known for its special shape creations.  

After the moment of silence, the initial group then launched into the air and the rest of the balloons were given the ok to fly.  

I was lucky to ride in the Roping The Wind balloon piloted by Captain Scott Nicol, of Mesa. Nicol is a longtime adventurist balloonist who has been flying since 1991 with more than 3,000 hours of flight time. 

Nicol was familiar with the area having flown here before with the SalsaFest and others. While the balloons followed locals Greg and Susan Lindsey of AZ Air Ventures along the farmland route hugging U.S. Highway 70 as they blew westward, Nicol went a bit higher and caught a left to explore the varying topography of the mountainous desert to the south. 

After an initial bit of uneasiness from yours truly upon liftoff, the balloon ride was the smoothest form of flying one could imagine. Nicol masterfully sailed the winds at different heights to help move the balloon in one direction or the other and change speed. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Mount Graham as seen from the sky.

While he piloted, the scenery was outstanding as the sunrise and cloud cover formed a picturesque environment with the snow gleaming off the top of Mount Graham. 

Nicol pointed out the various areas we flew over and was informative on how the balloon works. As the other balloons in the group touched down in Thatcher or Pima, Nicol managed to go much farther and landed on Klondyke Road into the waiting arms of his chase team, who assisted as Nicol landed the craft onto the road as soft as a feather. While the pilot is obviously essential to flying a balloon, the chase team is essential for recovery and overall operations of the balloon and is an absolute must for any balloonist.   

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: The topography seen from the air was incredible.

Nicol had the crew lay down the balloon into the grassy shoulder and desert and they began the job of packing it all back up and onto his truck. The crew made short work of the labor, and after giving their “good mornings” to a couple of local traffic, had the balloon, basket, and fuel packed for transport in just a short time.

The event will continue through Sunday.     

Click here to view the Gila Herald’s Photo Album of the launch and flight.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Balloon launches will take place Friday-Sunday (weather permitting) and there will be a Balloon Glow on Friday and Saturday nights.