Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Colorful Morning

"Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
We could float among the stars together, you and I
For we can fly, we can fly

Up, up and away
My beautiful, my beautiful

All four balloons in the air!

Just outside of Rapid City, South Dakota lies a natural depression called the "Stratobowl."  This tiny valley rimmed with tall rocky cliffs creates the perfect environment for hot air balloon launches.  Beginning in 1934, when a manned high-altitude balloon named The Explorer lifted off from the grassy floor, several record-setting scientific research balloons have begun their flights from this humble canyon.

Beginning to inflate

Every September a local hot air balloon club holds a rally in the Stratobowl to commemorate these historic flights.

Getting bigger....

The last day of my September South Dakota trip, I got the chance to witness one of these balloon launches.  My oldest niece has an ex-college roommate whose entire family pilots hot air balloons.  Since prepping a large balloon for flight takes many hands, my niece often gets asked to help.  She invited me to come along and watch (and of course bring my camera).  I was thrilled to have an opportunity to witness and photograph the event.

Almost there....

Hot air balloonists are early risers.  Balloons are typically launched just after dawn, when winds are most likely to be calm.  That's how I found myself in my niece's car at o-dark-thirty that morning, heading to the Stratobowl.  The valley floor is private property, so this area is typically closed to the public during the balloon rally.  But thanks to my niece's connections, we zipped right down to the bottom where the first two balloons were being spread out, awaiting inflation.

Time for the hot air!

It was damp and chilly that morning, a foggy mist rising from the grassy field (which made the photographer in me very happy).  However, strong winds were blasting the Stratobowl's upper rim.  Although the natural bowl protected balloon participants from the gusts, they were totally exposed once the balloons left this safe haven.  Event organizers were debating whether to allow the day's scheduled launch.

Up and away!

After standing in the cold, wet mist for a half hour the word came down.  No flights today - the wind was too strong to safely launch.  A few of the balloonists immediately packed up and left, heading to another location where the weather was reputed to be calmer.

Give it one final blast

But four balloons decided to stay, inflate anyway, and do tethered flights below the canyon rim.  Hooray!  I'd get to see these colorful airships in action after all!

My niece's friend's balloon

The first two balloons were laid out, and large fans pointed at their openings.  Once the balloons were filled nearly to capacity, hot air burners replaced the fans, finishing the inflation and causing the balloons to right themselves.  It was a fascinating process to watch.

Two balloons inflated

Then crews attached several heavy nylon straps to the balloons - one end was tethered to stationary objects on the ground (mostly bumpers of large trucks).  The pilots climbed inside their baskets, fired up the burners, and the balloons gracefully began to rise.

Balloon number three is almost ready to go

Even though the balloons couldn't ascend very high, seeing these colorful airships floating above me was breathtaking. 

High in the sky

I only wish the skies would've cooperated with blue hues instead of washed-out whites.  Made for challenging photographic conditions.  The bright white skies tricked my camera's light meter and I was constantly underexposing the balloons.  It took many shots for me to figure out the correct adjustments to capture things properly.

Three balloons ready

Then I noticed my niece's friend's balloon was beginning to inflate.  It was a bright red and yellow striped beauty.  I stood off to the side, trying to nab some images without getting in the way.

The foggy ground made for great pics

However, the crew members and the other spectators were all very nice.  No one seemed to mind me taking photographs.  There were other photographers roaming around and we all were mindful of staying out of each other's shots.

Now a fourth balloon begins inflating

My niece's friend's balloon became fully inflated and I watched as it slowly drift off the ground. 

Four balloons ready for flight

Now all four balloons were fully inflated and ready for flight.  Nearby spectators began to climb into their baskets for short rides.

Giving spectators rides

The four balloons alternated between being in the air and on the ground.  I was hoping to get a few photos of all four balloons in the air at once, but didn't happen very often.  I had to keep my eyes peeled and be quick on the shutter.

My turn!

Then my niece motioned me over.  Would I like to ride in her friend's balloon?  Oh boy, would I!  She didn't have to ask twice.

Views from on high

My niece's friend instructed me to climb into the basket.  Then the other passenger scrambled out.  She fired up the burners and we slowly began to rise. 

The tether tied to a pickup truck

We didn't climb very high - only about 100 feet I think.  I was torn between taking lots of photographs and just enjoying the ride.  In the end, I managed to get a few images of my views from the balloon basket.  But it was such an amazing experience - very quiet and peaceful just floating in the air.  I wished we could've flown higher.

The burner in action

This young lady, only in her mid-20s, was already an accomplished balloon pilot.  She definitely know what she was doing and expertly guided the balloon up and back down again.  I was impressed by how professional and skilled she was for such a young age.  I was so busy taking in the scenery and photographing, that my ride was over before I thought to ask her more questions.

My niece takes a ride with her friend

Once back on the ground, my niece jumped in the basket with her friend.

Trying to capture the balloon's underside

I got a few photos of the two young ladies soaring above me, chatting away as good friends do.

My niece and her friend the balloon pilot

It's awesome to see young people involved in such unusual activities.  Hats off to both my niece (who has recently started graduate school) and her friend (who is an engineer for Polaris and flies hot air balloons in her spare time).

Colorful spectacle in the Stratobowl

Although I was a tiny bit disappointed not to be able to witness an actual balloon launch, it was still great fun to photograph these colorful balloons and observe first hand how they are inflated and flown.

My niece admiring the balloon

Huge thanks to my niece for taking her old aunt along for the ride.  It was a fabulous morning I won't soon forget!


  1. how exciting and very colourful. this has been on my bucket lisst for years adn perhaps soon i will be able to do it.

  2. Wow. What a great adventure. You came back with some amazing images!

  3. What colourful and exciting scenes - and much more leisurely than your usual method of gaining altitude!

  4. Estas viagens de balão são espectaculares.
    Um abraço e continuação de uma boa semana.

    Dedais de Francisco e Idalisa
    O prazer dos livros

  5. ...neat, we went for a ride thirty years ago. We had a great time.

  6. They always make stunning photographic subjects although I’m not sure I’d ever want to get in one!

  7. Hello, the hot air balloons are so colorful and pretty. It is cool you got to ride in one, love the photos. Happy Wednesday, enjoy your day!

  8. We have a small Balloon Festival in the village and it is great to watch them being inflated , they also have a night burn which is great to see and get photos of but I have also been for a balloon flight over Oxford and that was Awesome

  9. Lucky day and great colours. I've always fancied going up in a balloon rather than hang-gliding or skydiving which appear more extreme versions of getting airborne although I know some balloon landings can be tricky. A gentle ascent seems much better.

  10. That looks awesome. A balloon ride is on my bucket list.

  11. Well, congratulations on your first balloon ride! I love the colorful pictures, and I enjoyed the whole experience along with you! :-)

  12. Very cool! I've never got to ride in a balloon, at least you got a little float time!

  13. Awesome. I love all the bold colours!

  14. I'm glad you had a chance to photograph hot air balloons even tho they didn't fly as intended. So fun to watch the process as I've seen it many times. My brother lives in Albany and he enjoys their festival. May be we should go to the Tigard one next year. Glad your niece took you along with her!

  15. Well, you have that balloon ride at last, short though it was. Absolutely fantastic photography, especially given the lack of blue sky. The colours of these balloons are so eye catching against that amazing green grass.

  16. I really want to do this someday!

  17. What fun! I think a tethered ride would be just fine by me:) Your photos are lovely:)


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