Hot-air aviation experiences a ‘renaissance’ as the Snowmass Balloon Festival takes off

A bird and hot air balloons soar through the sky on the first day of the 44th annual Snowmass Balloon Festival in Snowmass on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

You could say that hot air ballooning is booming lately.

“It’s a revival, if you want to call it that – it’s getting more popular again,” said Tim Cole, who has been airplaying since 1977.

It was also the first year he attended the Snowmass Balloon Festival, then in its second iteration; he has participated in the city’s tradition for more than 30 consecutive years and returns this year after a ten-year hiatus to pilot “Red”, a ship with a color befitting its name, during the three-day event which takes place from September 10 to 12. in the city park.

About 15 years ago, the field entered what Cole calls a “recession”; he’s not quite sure what pushed interest in a decreasing direction, but suspects it has to do with a “need to have immediate gratification”.

“People like to have fun right now, they don’t like going out and buying expensive equipment and then not being able to use it just because their weather and the weather weren’t compatible,” Cole said.

But over the past five years, however, Cole has seen the pendulum swing the other way – hence this “rebirth” he described.

“That’s what’s exciting: we’re seeing more growth, we’re seeing a lot more female riders, and younger riders are getting into it as well,” he said.

Cole himself entered the hot air balloon business after a stint in military aviation, but anyone can start down the path to lighter-than-air flight by getting involved with volunteer crews and learning on the job at festivals like Snowmass Village this weekend. So what has changed?

From the ground, the ships floating in the skies above the Roaring Fork Valley this weekend may not be all that different from the balloons that returned when Cole was just getting his hands on the ground and the Snowmass Balloon Festival had just taken off in the late 1970s.

But over the past 40 or so years, hot air balloons have become more efficient, more technical, more capable, Cole said, which also makes more adventurous routes possible.

And as rural communities have grown, turning once open landing and launch sites into built-up neighborhoods, the resurgence of hot air ballooning in recent years has also enabled pilots to find new routes, launches and landings that can add to the excitation factor. , said Cole.

“People are finding new places to fly (where) it’s a lot more fun,” Cole said.

Not that it was never fun. It’s a collegiate group that often gets together at hot air balloon festivals, and the friendly competition in “rat races” adds another layer of shared experience. (One such race, heading down the valley from Snowmass Village, will start around 7 a.m. on Friday, September 10.)

“There’s a lot of fun with the camaraderie, people go out and experience it all, and everyone has a different flying experience, and you like to share that, when they have competition,” Cole said. “It’s always fun to have the right to brag about the quality of your results in the competition, and so there are a lot of people out there at the same time enjoying the same experience.”

Doing well in such a race requires a certain take-off strategy; once in the air, there’s a degree of “you’re at the mercy of the winds,” Cole said. But that’s also part of the excitement.

“I love the ability to fly at a lower altitude where you really can, like you’re on a magic carpet, and that feeling stays with you, and you go at a slower pace, and every flight is an adventure. “, he mentioned.

Geese fly in formation on the grounds of the 44th annual Snowmass Balloon Festival in Snowmass on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Quite the statement of a pilot with a stacked resume of truly adventurous flight: Cole logged flights across continents and oceans, set a world record for the longest solo flight in a balloon powered by ammonia and built the ship that took pilot Steve Fossett on the first solo flight around the world.

It was a natural transition to ballooning longer distances from shorter flights, Cole said. As a professional insurer looking to expand his business, he was able to chat with transatlantic adventurers who hadn’t previously thought about insuring their journeys across the pond against damage that might occur.

“They were asking me to get insurance for some of their projects, and I ended up knowing more about what they were doing than they were, so I was invited to be part of their team” , Cole said.

This crew completed a successful transcontinental flight from San Francisco to eastern Canada, following the St. Lawrence Seaway; After some technical advances, the team made its first attempt to fly around the world from Luxor, Egypt, he said. (Cole also built the Spirit of Freedom, a solo ship in which aviation adventurer Steve Fossett made the first-ever solo flight around the world in a balloon; the Sprit of Freedom’s capsule is now in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.)

Businesses like Around the World and boundary-pushing flights have occupied his time over the past decade. But there’s still plenty of excitement to return to hot air balloon festivals like Snowmass, where Cole will reconnect with the hot air balloon community and the landscape of the Roaring Fork Valley.

Hot air balloons soar into the air on the first day of the 44th annual Snowmass Balloon Festival in Snowmass on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

He’s flown from Newfoundland to Germany, from San Francisco to eastern Canada, and all around the skies over his home port of Greeley, where he’s lived since 1960. But Snowmass, with his mountainous landscapes and its rolling hills that shape the direction of the wind, remains “one of the most spectacular places to fly”, he said.

“You’re actually flying in the hills, in the mountains – it just adds a lot more excitement,” Cole said. “And sometimes people use the word thrill, and it almost sometimes implies taking a risk, but it’s not (a risk). It’s just wonderful. It’s peaceful. Everywhere you look you are surrounded by the magic of the mountains.”