St. Louis retains an unmatched record of having hosted three Gordon Bennett gas balloon races in the past, more than any other American City and on September. 14, 1996 the Gordon Bennett Qualifier was held in St. Louis under the watchful eye of Randy Woods. Several Gateway Aerostatic Association members were participants in this event including Randy Woods, Ted Staley, George Hahn, Rusty Elwell, Mike Pollmann and Jimmy Gualdoni.
"I have a mission for you, I need you to find me a barograph," Rusty Elwell said when he called me from Amarillo, Texas.. "A what...was my response?" Well when I found out what a barograph was my phone calls began. I called a friend at Midwest Aviation, a newspaper that I write for and was given some names of people I could contact. Within the next hour I spoke to a few test pilots as well as some glider pilots and the real coincidence was that the person that solved my problem was actually someone that I had recently met when I went for my first glider ride a few weeks before. I called Rusty and BK back and told them, "First mission accomplished and that Keith (my husband) and I could go on the chase this time."
Keith and I had crewed for Rusty and BK, his wife and efficient crew chief in the past on their gas balloon but we had always been unfortunate enough to not be able to go on the chase but this time was to be different. Our friends Mike Pollmann and Jimmy Gualdoni were to be co-pilots on this flight - their first gas balloon flight and since Keith and I wanted to be a part of this memorable experience we both took time off from work. (Shhhhhhhh....I called in sick.)
Inflating a classic or netted gas balloon takes a lot of time and it takes more crew people than on a typical hot air balloon inflation. Rusty had quite a few local balloon crew assembled to help with the inflation of Class Act. The work began with the filling of the inflation bags and flight bags with sand. Rusty always gives a great crew briefing and this one was no different. He explained in detail what to expect and how to handle things correctly, such as how to properly lift those 30 pound sandbags. Rusty always puts emphasis on, "Safety First".
Once the tarp was laid out, inflation sandbags positioned, envelope pulled out and net untangled the inflation began. This is approximately a 2 1/2 hour to 3 hour process. Sandbags are positioned around the balloon and as the balloon inflates under the net the sandbags are temporarily attached to the netting. As the envelope fills the sandbags are moved systematically down on the net. Since it was very hard for the crew to hear the commands during the inflation to move the sandbags down the crew would listen for Rusty to blow on a whistle as the signal to move the sandbags down one diamond on the netting. This allows the balloon to inflate evenly and eliminates wrinkles in the fabric which could possibly cause the fabric to tear.
Once the balloon is fully inflated the inflation appendage is tied off. At this time the balloon is still held to the ground by the inflation sandbags which are still attached to the netting. The basket is carried under the envelope and attached. Additional sandbags are placed on the basket for the flight and final preparations of the flight. Once the basket is attached to the envelope the inflation sandbags are removed. Rusty and his co-pilots Mike and Jimmy go through their final checklist. The launch directors went through an additional checklist with them before giving them the ok to launch.
You can feel the excitement in the crew when they realize that it is almost time for the launch of Class Act, the balloon they had just spent the afternoon putting in some hard work inflating. A loud cheer was heard when Rusty, Mike and Jimmy launched. Most of the crew gave a sigh of relief that all had gone well in the inflation and thenthe thoughts turned to, "How long will they fly? and Where will they end up?".
BK once again went into action taking care of the ground operations. With the help of her crew she made sure that the sandbags were emptied, tarp folded, everything put away and stowed for the chase and that the inflation site was secure. Time now to thank everyone, say goodbye to the ones that couldn't go on the chase and head out. Even though I was a little tired the adrenaline was pumping because I was excited to finally go on a chase of a gas balloon. The chasers for Class Act for this event were BK, Keith and myself.
We had prearranged to make contact with Class Act every hour on the hour. After our contact by radio we would look at the map and decide on just where we would go to be slightly ahead of the balloon. While chasing we would take small naps while waiting for our next radio contact but you know what? I was like a little kid afraid that I would miss something so I found it hard to sleep. I do recall, however, one radio transmission in the early morning hours where Co-pilot Mike was relaying a message to George Hahn that went something like, "Benny Hunny this is Class Act".....(Class Act was relaying messages to George Hahn in the Benihana balloon who was unable at the time to contact his crew by radio.) The crew got a good laugh out of that one.
One of the many exciting things for me on the chase was when we were sitting at a gas station at sunrise and looking up in the distance and seeing a balloon which we found out later was Class Act. My thought was, "Not bad for chasing a balloon all night and never seeing it until now!" That morning had dawned bright but Rusty, Mike and Jimmy were keeping a watchful eye on the darkening western sky. We called on the weather for them and found out that the front that was due in later that day had moved faster during the night and might be catching them just before they reached the east side of Illinois.
Rusty, Mike and Jimmy wanted to go on to Indiana and make it a three state flight but because of the darkening sky the decision was made to land. We hurried ahead of the balloon and reported to them on pi-balls readings. They were moving east while within 200 feet of the surface the winds changed and headed northwest. While we were watching the approaching descent of the balloon we noticed that we had a caravan of cars following us. It seemed as if the whole town had seen the balloon and started to follow it. All were very helpful in directing us to roads to get where we needed to go and they were certainly excited that a balloon had landed in their small town of New Salem, Illinois.
Rusty worked the valve, Jimmy did the precision ballasting, and Mike watched the rate of descent as they did a beautiful landing at the old abandoned airport. The crew and about 15 people from the town were right there to catch the basket as it gently settled into the waist high grass. It was definitely a special moment for us to realize that we were there for the landing of Class Act after chasing it all night. We could certainly see the exhilaration of Rusty, Mike and Jimmy - Rusty because every flight is a great experience and Mike and Jimmy because this was their first gas flight.
Everyone was on a "ballooning high" while Class Act was deflated and packed up. As we headed back to Mount Vernon, IL for breakfast there were a lot of video moments in the van as we heard all about the flight and it was almost comical when you would catch someone dozing off during the drive back to St. Louis, as the adrenaline started to wear off and the tiredness set in.
If opportunity knocks and you get to help inflate or go on a chase of a gas balloon I highly recommend it. It's a lot of work but what I learned about one of the oldest forms of ballooning is truly an experience I will never forget. Thank you Rusty and BK for letting Keith and I be a part of it!