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Balloon rally fills Boise skies with color

Hot-air balloons launch from Boise's Ann Morrison Park as part of the Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic, which runs through Sunday (Betsy Russell)
Hot-air balloons launch from Boise's Ann Morrison Park as part of the Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic, which runs through Sunday (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Colorful hot-air balloons are filling the skies over Boise this weekend, as Idaho’s capital marks the the 20th anniversary of mass hot-air balloon launches from a downtown park in the heart of city.

The annual Boise tradition has continued despite the demise nearly a decade ago of the Boise River Festival, for which it was a signature attraction; there was a three-year hiatus from 2007 to 2009, but it returned last year as a stand-alone event that organizers say is strong and growing.

The allure of hot-air ballooning: “It’s calm and exhilarating and serene, all at the same time,” says hot-air balloon pilot Val Favicchio of Coeur d’Alene.

Favicchio says the Boise rally is among her favorites; she and her passengers usually fly alone in Coeur d’Alene, where she runs Adventures Aloft, a business that offers scenic balloon rides launching from the North Idaho College soccer field and floating toward the Rathdrum Prairie.

“Rallies are what I like the most, because I get to fly with other balloons,” Favicchio said. Besides the camaraderie, which is strong, there’s a practical aspect to that: Hot-air balloons navigate only by moving up or down. Seeing other nearby balloons tells pilots about wind speeds and directions at different elevations and helps them steer - they can move up or down to catch a stronger or lighter breeze.

The Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic has attracted 30 hot-air balloonists this year, a high number that makes for quite a spectacle as they rise from the center of the city and float over local landmarks, homes, schools and more - sometimes landing in surprising places.

The Boise balloon rally is noted for the trickiness of landings in an urban environment. “I’ve done the Albuquerque thing, but this is unique because it’s right in the middle of town,” Favicchio said. “It’s kind of a select group that’s asked back.”

The Boise rally started on Thursday and runs through Sunday, but 15 balloonists already had shown up in town by Wednesday morning and launched then, too. Scott Spencer, the event’s producer, said that day, 10 balloons landed at Boise schools, to the students’ delight - five of them at South Junior High alone.

Favicchio, who is flying the “Spirit of Boise” balloon for this year’s rally, landed at Sacred Heart school on Wednesday morning. The next day, she set her balloon down in a dusty clearing next to some railroad tracks, after a brush with a big pine tree kept her from her first choice of a landing spot, a grassy vacant lot nearby, free of power lines.

“I’ve never had a bad landing here,” Favicchio said. “I’ve landed in cul de sacs and parks.”

When she landed at the school, the bell had just rung to end recess, but school officials extended the recess and brought all the kids back out; Favicchio demonstrated the balloon’s whooshing flame that builds its hot air, and the youngsters were fascinated.

Boise lacks “red zones” for its rally - places where pilots are instructed that property owners don’t want them to land. Favicchio recalled flying in Walla Walla, where she had to stay up at a certain elevation to pass above a prison.

In Boise, she said, “People are just delighted.”

She said, “The community supports us and they look forward to it. That’s half the battle.”