With a state slogan of Big Sky country,
balloonists visiting Montana may think
there’san endless amountof landing spots
in the fourth-largest state in the U.S.
“One ofthe big things people will
come hereand say is look at all these
landing spots,” said Dennis Waldron, of
Billings.“Buta lotof it is land that cannot
be habitable. It’s literally uninhabited.”
There are few roads leading into the
fenced grazingfieldsofthe prairie west of
Billings, the state’s most populated city

with 120,000 in themetropolitan area.
The average pasture can consist of hun-
dreds of acres, he said.
Montana. With barely 900,000 residents
(notcountingthe Unabomber), itremains
thethird least-populatedstate inthe coun-
Andfewer than 10of itsresidentsare
active balloonists.
Three pilots live in Billings, two in
Kalispell and one each in Bozeman, Great

Fallsand Plentywood.
Dan Miller, a retired balloonistfrom
Billings,remembershis first flight. Itwas
July4, 1976, and Billings balloonist Tom
Barrow was flying a Bicentennial promo-
tion for a radio station Miller worked for.
“I was intrigued with it,”Miller said.
He got his license and had the station,
KOOK, buy a balloon.
“We were constantly promoting the
radio station, taking it out to every junior
high and high school in the community,”
Miller said.
In Billings, pilots can fly over town
and across the Yellowstone River. Rim-
surroundingthe townstand about500 feet
higher. Sometimesthe terraincreates box
winds,allowingpilotstoland back attheir
protection has lured gas and hot-air pilots
to Billingsto attempt record-setting flights.
Prevailing winds would take pilots to the
southeast intoWyoming orSouth Da-
But the rocks can even make local
flights memorable, pilotssay.
“Itprovidessom echallenging
flights,” Waldron said. “In the summer
with the heat coming off the rock, it gets
pretty windy sometimes. The wind will
double when you get over the topof them
in the afternoon.”
Miller estimated 75percent ofhis
flight sended in windy landings. Some of
his landings were in fields of sugar beets
or corn.
“If you picked the wrong spot to land,
you’d have to walk it out a half mile,”he
said. “Butwhat’s nice about Billings,you
can be out overopen territory from20
minutes to a half hour. Most always the
wind picks up out here after sunrise.”
Mike Wemple, another Billingsbal-
loonist who used to operate a repair sta-
tion,said airport officials there welcomed
“We’d notify them when we’d take
off,”he said. “A lot of times we’d end up
flying right over the airport.”

IMAGE sob010307.gif




Plentywood •


Big Skyfest Balloon Festival, in Bill-
ings,third weekendinJuly, 50bal-
loons fly five sanctionedflights Fri-
day morning through Sunday morn-
ingfor $20,000in prizes;Thursday
morn ingm ed iafligh t,Thu rsd ay
evening balloonist parade and BBQ;
tethering Sunday afternoon. Contact:
Rob or Jetta Schantz, P.O.Box 51591,

IMAGE sob010308.gif

The state’s only annual balloon rally,
the Big Skyfest Balloon Festival, features
Across the state in Bozeman is where
you’llfindballoonistScottTaylor, who
moved there from Illinois, hopingtosell
ri destoto uris tstravel ingb etween
Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.
But most of his passengers, who pay
$165forrides,are locals,saidhiswife,
through October, mostly in the mornings,
she said.
Flights inBozemanare over a broad
valleyofferingspectacularviewsof the
surroundingGallatin and Bridger moun-
“We have plenty of room to fly with-
out hittingthe mountains,” she said.
Up in Kalispell, in the Flathead Val-
ley, PaulFifieldflieslocalsandtourists
visiting Glacier National Park.
Lake, Whitefish Lakeand the Swan Moun-

tains,whichare part of the Rockies,” he
said. “And there’s Glacier National Park,
32 miles from our door.”
common sightson hisflights, whichare
usuallyheldMaytoOctober overriver
valleys and pasture fields of alfalfa, mint
and barley.
views,” Fifieldsaid.
The windsinthevalleyare sopre-
dictable,he onlyhastwolaunchsites:a
golf course anda cemetery.
“We have very dependable wind cur-
rents,”Fifield said. “We’ll often have box
winds we can play with.”
No flying is permitted in the million-
peakshave beenoverflown byballoons.
Balloons have also been seen in Flat-
head and on the prairie of Miles City over
the years,whenrallieswere held there.
Despite the reputation Montana’s had
with loners living in the hills, Fifield said

“We haven’t had anybody meet us on
the field with a shotgun,” he said.
much, peoplewould startcomplaining,”
multiple balloon flight here except for the
rally inmore than 10years.”
Millersaidb allooningwasmore
popular inMontana in the early ‘80s.
“At one time, we had10 hot-air bal-
loons in Billings,” Miller said. “We’d get
together andhave our ownlittle rally.
older andBarrow, whoMiller called the
drivingforce ofballooninginMontana,
moved outof state.
“Attimes Ido missit,” Miller said.
“Whentheyhave therallyintown,I’m
almostafraidtogosee them, I’dwant to
there in that big blue sky.”

Billings •


Helena •

Kalispell •

Return to Checklist March 2001

Copyright © 2001 Balloon Life. All rights reserved.