Wild West Balloon Fest returns to Cody after 7 years

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Jack Way and his wife, Pink, were well-loved in the ballooning community.

Jack, with his oversized mustache and boisterous personality, was the organizer and driving force behind the “Wild West Balloon Fest” held annually in Cody for 19 years.

But as insurance costs rose and interest in ballooning waned, Cody’s ballooning event plummeted with it, ending in 2015.

Soon Jack’s health also began to decline and he passed away last year.

But a handful of dedicated balloon enthusiasts are determined to bring the Way-founded festival back – which is why ‘Wild West Balloon Fest: Jack’s Way’ is ‘launching’ this weekend from Mentock Park in Cody.


“It’s something this community has been doing for 20 years. We couldn’t just let it go,” said organizer Marci Bernard, who grew up in Greybull, just 53 miles east of Cody.

When she was little, Way introduced Bernard to the magic of hot air balloons at a street festival in her hometown.

“He was doing tethered rides on Main Street there. And so I thought that was really cool.

During a memorial balloon rally for Way last year, Bernard went to Mentock Park to take pictures and ended up being part of the crew and riding all weekend.

“When I said, ‘I have to do it again,’ one of our drivers, Mark Williams, and his wife, Rebecca, said, ‘Go ahead,'” Bernard said. “‘We will support you in any way.'”


The William’s, of Longmont, Colorado, brought one of three balloons that make up this rebooted version of the Wild West Balloon Fest.

Mark Williams, who was a fixed-wing pilot, said his wife’s enthusiasm for hot air balloons eventually won him over.

“She was the one who slowed me down in LTA (Lighter Than Air),” Williams said. “But, I can park the trailer in the front yard, I don’t need to have a hanger for that. I’m just not going that fast.

Williams bought his balloon, named “Bubbles” (named after a deceased friend who loved hot air balloons), just a few years ago, although he said his wife had been an enthusiast for many years.

He said while the gatherings are nice, they prefer to send ‘bubbles’ to places where people who might not otherwise see the balloons can enjoy them, such as car parks at children’s clinics or outside centers. long-term care.

“When we bought (our ball), that was the mission,” Williams said. “To bring it to those who cannot necessarily come to us.


Bob Kross has attended nearly every Wild West Balloon Fest gathering since its inception.

He told the Cowboy State Daily that he got his balloon license in 1996, just a year after he was first introduced to the world of hot air balloons.

“Someone asked me if I wanted to go out and gear up for them,” Kross said. “And I had fun, and they asked me to be crew a second time, and then the pilot said, ‘Get in and go for a ride.’ And I say to myself, I don’t like heights.

The irony was, says Kross, that his job is as a flight nurse in airplanes and helicopters.

“And we turned around and took this flight,” Kross said, “and five seconds after we took off, I’m looking over my head and saying, ‘God, that’s so cool! “”

Kross has brought his ball, “Morning Manna,” to Cody from his home in Rapid City, South Dakota, all these years, not just because of the location, but also because of the people.

“I came to Cody because it was a challenge to fly here at first,” he said, “then I came back for the family and the friends I made – the Wilders, the Ways, the Jesens.”

Kross said every time he got his ball up, it was a thrill. “I love to fly, and so every flight to me is a big flight,” he said, “and when I can share it with someone, that’s even better.”


Kross explained that hot air balloons are steered by the wind, but trained pilots usually know how to use the wind to their advantage.

“The wind is going in different directions at different altitudes,” he said. “And that’s kind of how we choose, because otherwise we’re considered an unguided aircraft.”

Williams explained a bit about how pilots have a general idea of ​​where the wind will take a balloon.

“It’s warm in South Dakota first, because the sun rises there first,” he said. “So (with) the cool air coming in from the tops of the mountains to replenish that rising column of warm air, we’re going to have an easterly breeze by 90% of the time.”

Williams said the afternoon winds would most likely blow the balloons west due to cooler air blowing in from the Black Hills to warmer desert air – but there are times when the balloons do not go where the pilots intended.

“All this weather stuff that we do on a regular basis so we can get a feel for how to maneuver this thing can all be changed if God says, ‘Yeah, but you’re going to Nineveh, boy! ‘” Williams said, explaining that he had several experiences where his ball didn’t land where he thought it would.

“I was out there in Longmont, Colorado, heading east, looking straight at the parking lot (where I was going to land),” Williams said. “I’m going straight for it like I’ve done so many times, I’ve reached the middle of the freeway, and I’m right over the freeway and – at a complete stop. And then the wind changed and all of a sudden it’s ‘Okay, so what’s over there?’ Because we’re going 20 miles an hour west.

Kross’ balloon carries two 20-gallon propane tanks. It will use a full tank during an average flight to raise the balloon.

He said the highest he had ever flown was around 9,000 feet – but his balloon can fly up to 14,000.

“(I was) 6,000 feet above the ground in Rapid City,” Kross said of his highest flight. “I could see clearly over the Black Hills.”


Others in the hot air balloon community would prefer to stay on the ground.

People who volunteer to “crew” balloon pilots must follow the trajectory of the balloon and anticipate where it will land, so they can pack the basket, burner system and “envelope”, as the ball itself is called.

Mary Jo Hibschweiler and her husband owned the balloon flown in the rally by Pat Newlin of Riverton – but Mary Jo said she had more fun chasing the balloons than flying them.

“Chasing is more fun,” said Hibschweiler, who said she enjoys interacting with onlookers. “Because you get people, ‘Oh, wow, that’s so cool!’ or “I was just out for my coffee” or “Going out for my morning jog.” They just think it’s cool.

However, there are those who are not fans of hot air balloons – farmers and ranchers whose livestock are frightened by large objects heading towards them, or landowners who have had negative experiences with penetrating hunting crews. on private property to retrieve balloons that have come down unexpectedly.

And Kross explained that there are other ways balloonists can get angry with those on the ground.

“People on the ground can hear us very easily because we are moving at the same speed as the wind,” he said. “So if you’re commenting on someone in a mumu at the back of their house watching, they can probably hear you.”


Bernard said that while this year hasn’t garnered a huge response, she hopes next year will bring more balls to Cody.

“Unfortunately, we overlap with Montana,” Bernard said. “Billings, Montana has its hot air balloon festival this weekend, and that’s kind of the reason why we have lower numbers. But next year we’ve already booked it for the weekend after Billings , and I hope we will have many more balloons.

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