In the bluster and roar of propane burners, inflater fans and yellow-jacketed officials, 35 hot-air balloons inflate and lift in the Walla Walla dawn.
And then, silence.
The air is calm, the traffic below is calm and Carlotta Szabo’s voice is calm as she says, nearly 1,000 feet above the earth, “Anyone have any matches?’
All eyes glance at the burner above.
Someone walked off with Szabo’s “striker” that she uses if the pilot light in her burner goes out - the burner that heats the air to keep the balloon aloft.
Szabo squeezes next to passenger Paula Swiger to rummage in a bag. Swiger never has been in an airplane before, much less a balloon, and she wraps both hands firmly around the upright. She takes a deep breath. Calm. Calm. Everybody stays calm in the seconds before Szabo finds the best $1.09 she ever spent:
A Bic lighter.
“I was praying,” Szabo admitted later. “But I also had faith.”
The 48-year-old teacher from Spokane’s Rogers High School relies on faith and forethought (she packed that lighter) in her pursuits. For she is an aeronaut, a “sailor of the sky.”
Above the streets of Walla Walla each May, she and a skyful of balloonists go where the wind takes them, drifting in space so quiet you can hear conversations on the ground.
The 22nd annual Balloon Stampede attracts nearly 25,000 spectators, not counting the guys in pajamas who watch from their yards, sipping coffee.
Conducted in the hours around sunrise and sunset, ballooning is a quiet pleasure. But it is not a solo sport.
As Szabo lifts off, three vehicles pull out to chase her. Her incandescent balloon is called The Wild Goose. This is then The Wild Goose chase.
Turn around, crew members say. Wait! This street is closed. She’s headed that way. She better make it over that stream. Is she past the power line? She’s in the gravel pit.
“Ballooning is one of the few sports that has participants sit still while the spectators do all the running,” said one stampede organizer.
“Trust us,” says crewman Jim Herbert starting his vehicle for the sixth time. “We don’t know what we’re doing.”
He and Mike Prior make it to the gravel pit, grab the rope and steady the sides as the basket touches down without a bump. Swiger gets out and Nancy Knight of Spokane gets in - with a 3-pound miniature Yorkie named Rudy in her purse.
“The insurance is paid up,” Knight calls out as she rises. “Tell the boys I love them.”
Ten crew members race back to their cars. They are Szabo’s friends, as close as family. Mostly teachers from Washington and Idaho, and former students from Spokane. They’ve customized her trailer, filled her propane tanks and chased her across county lines.
At least three are student balloon pilots who are preparing for the same kind of written, oral and performance exams fixed-wing pilots must take.
Szabo is a popular commercial pilot who passes her experience along. The crew has flown hours with Szabo, watching grazing deer, getting caught in rain and then spending all night drying the nylon balloon out with fans. (Imagine 1,500 yards of mildew.) “I’d sooner give up my balloon than give up my crew,” Szabo says. “These people are wonderful.”
They are a small village. Members change, some move, one broke a leg and at least one missed this stampede to chaperone the Rogers High prom. But Szabo flies, as she has for nearly 18 years, in good company.
Mentored by Spokane’s Forey Walter, maker of Avian balloons, Szabo named her first balloon Skylark, for Shelley’s poem. Her favorite spot is flying 10 feet off the ground, skimming contours of the hills.
“I like that close-to-the-earth feeling” the English teacher says. “It’s like floating in water, except that you’re in the air.”
And you can fall hundreds of feet. Balloonists say safety is the top priority, and Szabo’s routine is a marvel of double-checking the details.
Still, in the past two months one person has died and 10 have been injured in balloon crashes in Arizona and Colorado. Most injuries involve hard landings. Because of that risk, Szabo pays nearly $700 a year in insurance premiums.
The risk is part of the thrill, she admits, and proof of her faith. Her hair has been badly singed. One landing in a friend’s balloon was so hard she broke her sternum. In Idaho at a rally, she was blown into the side of a hill.
At a 1991 church picnic at Comstock Park, her rope snapped as she prepared to give tether rides. As the balloon drifted, she got caught in a thermal updraft and shot up out of control for nearly a mile. People on the ground had no idea the predicament she was in.
Once out of the updraft, she landed safely near Latah Creek. But the experience changed everything.
“It was the Lord’s way of saying, ‘This is not how I want you to live your life.”’
Szabo realized she could not control everything. She stopped flying her balloon for nearly three years, worked on relationships, grew spiritually. She committed her life to Christ and learned to trust that things will work out.
When her mother died and left her a small inheritance, she was ready for The Wild Goose.
The balloon’s incandescent orange exterior was made by Walter, who taught Szabo how to applique the fabric. She and friends sewed on nine Canada geese, named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer. … A flame blown sideways can burn the fabric, water can damage it.
Due to rain, Szabo and other pilots canceled Saturday night’s Nite Glow event. The decision disappointed thousands gathered at the Walla Walla park, but balloonmeister Jerry Cummins said that is part of the sport.
“You have to be a decision maker,” he said. “You have to make decisions constantly and then on the next decision, decide whether to alter your course or stay with it.”
Before flights, pilots get official weather briefings and send up pi balls - small helium balloons - to gauge the wind. They must fly in almost constant anticipation, thinking ahead as Szabo did with the Bic lighter, because reaction time in a balloon is so slow.
But mostly, they must be adventurers, people who believe in the oldest form of man-made flight; who honor traditions, from wicker baskets to champagne.
Like the early French balloonists who used champagne to placate frightened farmers when they landed, Szabo breaks out champagne and sparkling cider upon setting down.
She welcomes newcomers to the sport as “full-fledged aeronauts, sailors of the skies.” And as she does before and during, after a flight she prays.
“That all your landings be soft ones.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: QUITE A SIGHT Walla Walla’s Balloon Stampede attracts nearly 25,000 spectators.
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