SI Vault
Lowell Cohn
April 20, 1981
A wash of gray covered the land, and the lines of mountain and desert were still vague. Inside the lodge people were sipping coffee. It was 5:30 a.m. and The Balloon Ranch was slowly coming to life. The ranch, in Del Norte, Colo., on the western rim of the San Luis Valley, is a 5-year-old resort where city folks come to experience the wonders of hot-air ballooning in a pristine setting some 40 miles east of the Great Divide. My own introduction to the sport and the ranch came several months previously. Conditions had been fouled up for days. Even though the crews got up before daybreak to beat the thermals, rough swirling winds that interfere with balloon activity, the wind was turbulent enough to force the cancellation of many flights. Chief Pilot Frank Rider, who recently left the ranch but is due back this summer, was the only one unconcerned; he accepts getting "winded out" as part of the sport. "At first," Rider said, "I would run around yelling, 'Too much wind, there's too much wind.' But one thing ballooning has taught me is patience. If we can't go up I have as much fun just talking about it." He pointed out the window at an orange wind sock dancing lazily on a pole. "We may be grounded again. Ten miles per hour is our upper limit for safe winds. Beyond that, take-offs and landings get to be more work than fun."
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April 20, 1981

At The Balloon Ranch Spirits Rise, Troubles Vanish And Time Just Flies

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Afternoon Delight rose to 2,000 feet and caught a westerly, which began to push us back toward the ranch. I burned less often and we started descending. With the burner off, all we heard was the occasional creak of the basket's wicker. Until we heard the mooing. We had cleared some power lines and were within 100 feet of the ground when we saw a herd of cows to our left. Balloons spook cattle. We burned back up to 1,000, just in time to see Baby sail toward the cows. As her shadow passed over the field they faced around and froze. Suddenly we were looking at a still frame from a Western movie. We knew what would happen next. At the instant Baby came directly over them, the cows stampeded in that familiar chaos of dust and fear and animal moans.

As Baby rose to avoid the cows, she came beneath us, and we lost sight of her. There was a tense moment when we thought we might collide. Then Baby casually drifted off like an airborne mushroom. I shortened my burns from the usual 15 seconds to five, and we began dropping toward a stubble-filled field. At 100 feet, Frank told us to face forward, flex our knees and put on helmets; the landing would be rough. We hit at a slight angle and bounced along—like a routine grounder to the shortstop—for about 40 feet. Then we came to a perfect vertical stop, and before long Afternoon Delight had folded into the earth.

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