WHAMOBASS Flies Again!

by Mark Rowlee

No, it is not a new toy from Whamo and neither does it have anything to do with fishing. It's a balloon event that celebrates and promotes just one thing... ballooning!

WHAMOBASS originated 34-years ago in the San Francisco area. Since that time the Whiskey Hill Atherton Menlo Oaks Ballooning and Sporting Society has been meeting annually the weekend before Thanksgiving in celebration of Aerostation.

For the first few years the event was held in different locations, but since 1979, the event has been held in Coalinga, California, the site of a devastating earthquake in 1983. Coalinga was selected for several reasons. The winds in this area, appropriately known as Pleasant Valley, are usually calm and due to the time of year there are virtually no crops let in the fields to be a concern. Coalinga is also centrally located for the regular attendees and the community itself welcomes the balloonists with open arms.

West Valley College allows the balloonists to use their sports activities field as the daily launch site. The "headquarters" hotel is located directly across the street and the local population is on hand for the launches. The area newspaper reminds them of the event and they turn out for crewing and possible rides. On one morning after flying event volunteers prepare a huge burrito breakfast for everyone and anyone interested. And, as usual, there is plenty left over which is then sent to a local charity for distribution to those in need.

On Friday prior to the event, 19-balloons turned out for the morning flight, setting another milestone for the pre-event fly day. On Saturday, a Dawn Patrol of 7 balloons was followed by a regular flight that lasted for as much as 3 hours for many pilots. Multiple hops were possible and nearly everyone got rides. There were 54 balloons and 225 people registered this year.

That evening the morning's flying was celebrated at a huge barbeque prepared by Fred Sweeney of Arroyo Grande, California, a professional barbeque-ist. Sweeney also was on hand Sunday morning with eggs and 2 inch thick pork chops following the flight. His barbeques are well-known among those balloonist who attend various Central California events.

Awards were presented at the Saturday dinner to the "winners" of the morning's competition. Since this is an official "non-event" the tasks are designed to be light and fun. This time there was a hare and hound race that was combined with haiku poetry writing. The results as pilots and crew presented their poetic masterpieces made up the evening's humorous entertainment.

Held strictly for fun and to celebrate ballooning and all that is Aerostation, WHAMOBASS continues to draw more and more balloonists who yearly will drive hundreds and even thousands of miles to attend. It has the prestige of being the longest continuously operating balloon event in the world.

Long-time balloonist and organizer, Deke Sonnichsen, seemed pleased with the outcome. Lots of flying, lots of food and the first WHAMO-wedding! Sonnichsen, well-known in the ballooning community, has been involved with ballooning since his first ride in 1964. He has also been the event's eloquent organizer since its inception. An important part of the annual event is Sonnichsen displaying the ancient technology of communication and celebration that he has perfected... anvil firings! Each morning he fires the anvil to call pilots to their briefing (communication).

Also on Saturday the anvil was fired in celebration of the event's first wedding. Tying the knot were pilot Bill Cochran and "Crew Princess" (now "Pilot's Queen") Cindy Gottschling. A man of many hats and talents, Sonnichsen also officiated at the ceremony. Earlier he administered a commercial pilot check ride.

WHAMOBASS has become so popular there are already at least two websites with information and pictures. They are: http://www.thelawlers.com/WHAMO.html and http://www.webpages.ainet.com/gosner/syrinxballoon/whamobass98.htm. Sonnichsen said the event next year, the 35th, will be extra special and will probably see new milestones attained.

Celebrate your sport, have fun, advance the technology and enjoy yourself. This is what ballooning was meant to be. No commercial sponsorships, no souvenir stands, no outrageous fees and no egos to keep in check. Just good, clean fun, lots of beautiful flights and discounted propane. Congratulations go to Deke Sonnichsen and his band of volunteers for yet another successful WHAMOBASS!

If your interested in hearing more about this and other events like the next Moffett Field Hangar One Safety Seminar on March 27 and 28, contact the Pacific Coast Aeronauts at: lta2sum@garlic.com or call Tom Sharpee at 408-778-2842.

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