Hot air balloons return to skies over town

Flights grounded temporarily in wake of terrorist attacks

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— Hot air balloons are hardly thought of as posing a terrorist threat they depend upon the wayward breezes to maneuver. Just the same, when the FAA announced Sept. 11 that all general aviation aircraft were grounded, the daily operations of Steamboat's commercial hot air balloon companies were deflated as well.

"We were shut down for nine days," Ian Cox confirmed. The balloons were allowed to launch again last Friday.

Cox operates both Pegasus Balloon Tours and Wild West Balloon Adventures. Although Cox and his staff weren't really in the mood to fly in the wake of the terrorist bombings on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they continued to take reservations. They canceled them each day as it became apparent the FAA ban on flying would remain in effect.

Mary Danford of Balloons over Steamboat said if her company had to shut down for a period, September is one of the least damaging times of year.

"All of our customers were very understanding," Danford said. She added some of their reservations were canceled because the clients couldn't board commercial jets in distant cities to get to Steamboat anyway.

Hot air balloons were used for military purposes as far back as the Civil War, when tethered balloons served as aerial observation platforms to aid in locating the enemy's skirmish line. In Steamboat Springs, hot air balloons are purely for pleasure, aside from the occasional commercial photo shoot.

As a commercial balloon pilot, Cox is licensed and regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. As such, he contacts the FAA's "flight service" before each balloon launch to announce his plans. However, until this year, he wasn't in radio contact with "uni-comm" at Steamboat Springs Airport. Airport management here uses uni-comm to stay in touch with inbound and outbound airplane pilots to advise them of conditions at the airport, including other traffic, visibility and wind direction and speed.

This year, more than any other time in the past 20 years, Cox has found the prevailing winds taking him toward the airport, so he installed a radio. It was near the end of a flight on Sept. 11 that Cox learned from airport personnel that he was grounded.

Danford said the FAA would have allowed hot air balloon companies to continue tethered flights. But that doesn't afford the sense of flying her company's customers are seeking. Besides, tethered balloon operations are hard on the balloon fabric. Using the propane burners on board the balloon basket takes a toll on the fabric when the balloon isn't drifting in the breezes.

Cox said he typically flies one flight a day in September, enough to make balloon payments for October and November. That business was lost for nine days this year.

Cox launched his familiar black and multicolored balloon on Sept. 21 for a film crew working at a local guest ranch. He was back to flying the general public the next morning.

The same was true at Balloons Over Steamboat.

"We returned to flying Friday and we're back to normal now," Danford said.

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