The Yellowstone River winds its way through the Montana Custer Country, cutting through the Rimrock Canyons. Prairie grasslands, vast cattle ranches, and wind-carved rock formations define the landscape. Billings, where Montana Territory began.
This is where rolling wagons carrying dreamers of western adventure, horses ridden bareback by Indian warriors in colorful feathers and beads, where the Iron Horse forged a solid passage for the railroad barons, and cattle ranchers roped strays in the swirling dust of the open pains.
Today wagons still roll on authentic cattle drives, nightly rodeo riders are cheered by hundreds of rip-roarin’, would-be cowboys, and where Indians dance in colorful regalia on nearby reservations at annual pow-wow celebrations.
Billings, gateway to The Little Bighorn, where Custer made his last stand, the Beartooth Mountains, and Yellowstone National Park. The first weekend in August this year 65 balloons gathered for the First Annual Pepsi Big Skyfest. Billings is not new to ballooning. Events were held in the mid-70’s to early 80’s here. After a lapse of more than ten years the local Pepsi distributor in cooperation with the Billings Parks Department combined to host a major balloon event. Rob and Jetta Schantz, Balloon Tour America, organized the balloon show.
Three days of serious competition were on tap with both morning and afternoon tasks scheduled. Two afternoon tasks were cancelled due to local thunderstorm activity. The third afternoon task was a pilot’s discretion due to light and variable winds.
Mornings presented ideal conditions for multiple part tasks. The first day, Friday, August 5, involved a judge declared goal combined with a hare and hound, otherwise know as the Montana Shuffle. Pilots needed to work hard to keep to the right of the judge declared target as a 90 left turn near the surface had to be contended with. Owen Keown took first on the task with a drop of five inches. But, not without some help. He and Glen Moyer were flying side-by-side and neither could find the target area. Suddenly Moyer spotted the target to their left. He yelled to Keown the location. If Moyer had not seen the target neither would have been able to place their marker in the limited scoring area. The second part had the hare landing on the banks of the Yellowstone, across from a Rimrock Canyon wall. To make the target area after flying on from the judge declared goal required flying almost perpendicular toward the canyon wall, dropping down over the river at the face of the canyon. From just above the river surface the balloons took a 90 left turn toward the X. Jerry Mitchell was first with a drop just over four feet.
Day two and another two part task. This time a Watership Down (Fly in with a hare and hound). Although early morning surface winds were always less then five knots, winds a few hundred feet up were not. The winds from two hundred to just over one-thousand feet above the surface were moving in the 15-20 knot range. This required a great deal of planning for the fly-in launch selection. To close to the target area and the pilot would not be able to make corrections before passing the target area. John Lefler with a toss of two feet, five inches was first. The hare lead the balloons out of town to open pasture land. Dale Akridge with a drop of just under 13 feet took first. While 26 pilots scored on the first target only 15 got close enough to the second to be scored. Again positioning after the first target was important. And, using the Rimrock Canyon was an important element in establishing a desirable flight path to follow the hare. Balloons flying close to 15 knots would descend into the face of the canyon, turn 90 left and follow the Yellowstone River over a mile before ascending again to continue the chase.
With $12,500 in prize money on the line and no assurance that Sunday evenings flight would be possible Schantz called a three part task Sunday morning. Fly in, judge declared goal, and a hare and hound. Again pilots needed to be sure they had plenty of time to correct coming in on the main field. Bill Whelan dropped his marker eight inches from center to delight the crowd. Target two, hidden by trees in a city park, had balloons scampering for winds to correct back to right and get in position to make a run at the target. Eric Barnum, flying Mr. Peanut was first with a toss of four and a half feet. More Rimrock Canyon steerage and its back out to the open range in pursuit of the hare. Mark Stewart with a drop of three feet, three inches claimed first.
Overall winner was Owen Keown, his eight win of the 1995 ballooning season. Owen won $3,000 in cash. At the award ceremony Keown acknowledged Glen Moyer’s help on the first competition target but did not offer to share any of the prize.
The town of Billings was excited to have a balloon event again. The site of this year’s event was a new, unimproved park which required some last minute preparation. The Parks Department promised that by the first weekend in August next year there will be a grass field for the balloon to layout on. For those doubting Thomas’, the city took down a radio tower near the field just days before the event and put it back up again after the event was over. That is serious dedication to putting on a first class event.