Sunday’s flight was uneventful. We launched in calm air from Columbine Middle School. I flew for about three-quarters of an hour and made a passenger swap northeast of the local airport. The ground winds had picked up a little (5-6 knots) so I parked against a barbed wire fence. After swapping, the crew pulled me off the fence and let me go. I left without the radio.
After another half hour, I started to look for landing spots. Because the weather was pretty cold and stable, I probably had 15 or 20 gallons of fuel left from my original 40. The wind had picked up a little more. I saw some spots that would have worked but were a little tight. Finally, still with lots of fuel, I spotted a large unplanted field with a farm road adjacent. There was a little steerage, and I worked to it. I landed moving at around 10 knots still thinking stand up. After we took one bounce, I decided to pull the top. We ended up about 30 feet from the road.
My crew did the right thing. They got permission to retrieve from the landowner’s son, a man of about 25. His parents were away, but his mother arrived shortly thereafter. She talked to my crew chief for some time, then drove to where I was and told me that I had not hurt her field. No balloon had ever landed there, but she was going to make sure, by making an example of me, that no one ever landed there again. Then she started setting rules:
Sometime after we started the roller routine, Rick and Jody Simon, organizers of the rally, arrived. Bruce took a radio to them so they could talk. They tried to mediate by radio but no luck. Early on in the ordeal I had explained to the landowner that we did not know that balloons were not welcome on her land. I had told her that I would have her land marked as a prohibited zone on the map. She did not believe I would do that. Now Jody made the same offer- she told the lady that her farm would be marked as a red zone. At this, the landowner became upset, and said that red was too communist. She proposed that all landing places should be marked green, with her land unmarked!
Rick got a neighboring State Representative involved. This politician spent two hours trying to mediate, but still no luck. Finally Rick called the Denver News. He is not fond of media, but felt that nothing had worked, and maybe this would. They called and talked to the landowner for about two hours. Someone who saw the report said it was very derogatory to the landowner.
The four of us were still out grunting and rolling. Other people from the rally showed up, along with the Montrose Chamber of Commerce and the mayor of Olathe, the town we landed in. They were not allowed on the property so they waited along the edge.
By the time the sun finally set on us, we had moved the balloon a third of a mile, about half the distance to the edge of the property. The landowner refused to let us put a tarp over the system. The possibility of snow was predicted, so we made sure the skirt was on top to protect things as much as possible. As the four of us walked out, we were greeted by our supporters. The mayor tried to do his mayor thing, and asked me not to hate Olathe. I explained that Bruce and Lorraine lived in Olathe, that I did not hate the town, that this was just one landowner. He was satisfied and left. Pat the balloonmeister contacted the FAA to find out if there was anything to be done. They said there wasn’t as the balloon was not actually being detained.
I called my boss to explain that I would not be at work on Monday morning. Fortunately Bruce, Lorraine and Duane could all miss work too. Pat called to say that she had contacted the landowner, that she would meet with her first thing Monday morning. We should not go out to the farm until we had heard from her. Duane went home saying he would rig something up that we might sneak in to get the system out.
In the morning, we all met at Rick’s office in Olathe, and waited for Pat. She arrived and reported that the landowner would not budge. We headed back to the farm. Using parts of a go-kart and rebar, Duane had rigged something up. We each put a tire under our jackets, and Duane carried in an American flag. He figured that no one could be so unpatriotic as to deny us our flag, which was essential because of the flagpole. Inside the flagpole were pieces of rebar for Duane’s contraption. The landowner drove up as Duane unloaded the flag. She was headed to Grand Junction for a doctor’s appointment. She reiterated that the rules were the same. We did not know if her husband and son were watching from the house.
Duane put the dolly together. It would have worked but it still would have been slow work.
Meanwhile Rick radioed telling us that a helicopter was warming up. It was time to get the system out. With the flag proudly hanging from the basket, we liberated the system. We went to a local parking lot and packed the envelope into the bag. It had been 25 hours since we landed.
In packing the envelope, we tore it. The hole was not large, and I had it fixed during the week. The following weekend, I pulled the envelope out at another rally. We found another hole. I rushed back to the shop two hours away. That’s when we discovered a problem. The fabric with the tear was very thin and tore easily. We found more areas of thin, disintegrating fabric. I asked for a gore by gore inspection, and went back to the rally with my other balloon. I’d been too sentimental to sell the old system, so still had something to fly.
It turned out there were fifty-eight spots on the balloon that had degraded. We sent some fabric back to the manufacturer for analysis. Originally we thought maybe there had been some fertilizer on the unplanted field, and that it had reacted with the material. It does not look like that is the case. We also thought maybe it was a material defect and that the timing was coincidental. That was not the case either. The damage was chemical and not fertilizer. A close look at the damaged spots revealed splash patterns.
The balloon was in the shop from late November until the end of February. Several good friends helped remove the bad material prior to the repair, thus keeping labor and materials under $3000. It is possible that the landowner put something on my envelope while we were gone.
I have been over and over what lessons we might have learned. We tried to respect the landowner’s wishes. I believe my crew and I did everything right. If I’d had the radio, maybe the son would have said that we could land on the property. But then mother would have arrived and then we would have been in the same spot. I guess we’ll never know. I’m just glad its over.
The town of Montrose was wonderful throughout the ordeal. The Chamber of Commerce paid my extra night at the hotel. I cannot say enough about how well I was treated by all but the landowner. Adversity brings out the best in friends. I am grateful to the friends I made that weekend. I will be back, as hospitality was great and Montrose is a beautiful place to fly. If any of you end up there, I will be glad to recommend where not to land.