The clear blue skies over Windsor, California were filled with multitudes of color June 29-30th for the Eighth Annual Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic. "This is the best weather we've had in all eight years of the Balloon Classic," exclaimed Event Chairperson Beverly Graham, as she watched over 30 balloons lift off from the field Saturday morning.
Before the mass ascension, three Dawn Patrol pilots greeted hundreds of early morning risers both Saturday and Sunday with their radiant balloons. Laying out their envelopes while it was still dark, Steve Turner in Aurora Borealis, Larry Seiler in L'escalier, and Cathy Lursen in Sangria, displayed their skills in a pre-dawn extravaganza choreographed to music. By 5:30 a.m., all three balloons were in the sky with their burners glowing brightly and special battery operated lights suspending from their basket. As they ascended over the trees to the South the growing crowd cheered them on while listening to Master of Ceremonies, Brent Farris, narrate their flight.
Following the pre-dawn show, those festival goers who just couldn't roll out of bed until after sunrise, began arriving with their families for the picturesque 7:00 a.m. mass ascension. The morning activities began each day with VFW Color Guard Post 768 displaying our nation's colors as the National Anthem was sung by Santa Rosa Children's Chorus on Saturday and Sara Caldwell on Sunday.
The highlight of both days was the Hare and Hound Race, lead by Jeff Ross navigating his balloon, Stella, as the hare. As Jeff began his inflation in the early sun- lite morning, the hounds laid ready for the chase. Once Stella took off, the ground crews went to work for the mass ascension of hounds that would follow. As the amazed onlookers gazed into the sky, they witnessed 32 hot air balloons in various multicolored patterns and whimsical shapes such as a giant Safeway cart and Panda Bear face, take flight. Saturday's hounds continued to lift off until 7:50 a.m., when Dawn Patrol pilot, Cathy Lursen, refueled and made it back to the field to join in the chase.
The fierce Hare and Hound competition was tough this year with John Wright from Santa Rosa, Ca. taking first place on Saturday and Dale Dobbs from Red Bluff, Ca. securing first place on Sunday. Calm winds both days prevented the balloons from traveling very far, some having to land on the tarmac at the Sonoma County Airport and nearby cleared fields.
Following the mass ascension, Balloonmeister, Esther Sue Sykes, readied the field for the CNTE, or Convergent Navigational Task Event competition. As soon as the area was clear, a large white "X" was placed in the middle of the launch field with a 20' pole in its center. On top of the flag pole were bright orange streamers and a ring of car keys. Taking off from an area north of the site, one by one, the 15 CNTE balloons flew into the main launch field, serenaded by the acapella 40's style trio, Girls' Night Out. Strategically attempting to maneuver as close to the pole as possible, the skillful pilot who grabbed the ring would win a shining new truck donated by Silveira Pontiac of Healdsburg!
Unfortunately, none of the CNTE pilots over the weekend moved close enough to retrieve the keys, but several made excellent attempts at throwing their bean bags at the target. Lewin Williams of Corona del Mar, Ca. in Split-Tail won first place for Saturday's CNTE competition with 6'3". Sunday's winner was Bob Green from Carlsbad, Ca. in Little Wing with 11'9".
Hailing from California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, the 47 pilots who registered for this year's event put on an excellent show for the record-breaking crowd that attended. Enjoying perfect weather both days, the fine group of pilots and crew members made the event a safe and spectacular one for the entire family. The prize money for the top five pilots earning the highest points over the entire weekend went to: First Place -Howard Sowers; Second Place - Bill Dobbs; Third Place - Stan Robertson; Fourth Place - Dawn Grant; and Fifth Place - Jerome Guenther.
Sponsored by the Rotary Club of Windsor, the Sonoma Valley Hot Air Balloon Classic started in 1989 when a small group of Rotarians decided to defy the odds and launched a brand new regional event. That first year 40 balloonists participated in the Classic with each subsequent year either matching or increasing in numbers. Since its inception, the Classic has reached thousands of spectators and has turned into the second largest community event (after the Fair), raising more than $150,000 to support Sonoma County schools and community organizations. This year's primary benefactor was the Windsor Boys and Girls Club. Topping last year's contribution of $10,000, the Boys and Girls Club received $15,000 this year from the Rotary Club to help build their new facility in Windsor.
Located in the heart of wine country, Sonoma County is within driving distance of the majestic California redwoods, the Russian River, and the rugged Sonoma Coast. Thousands of visitors each year enjoy its award winning cuisine and special entertainment such as the annual Sonoma Marin Fair and the Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic.