Balloon makes difficult landing | SteamboatToday.com

Balloon makes difficult landing

Pilot, passenger uninjured in incident

It isn’t often that 16 people have to pitch in to rescue a squirrel from a tree.

But that was the situation Tuesday when a bright red, white and blue hot-air balloon named the Aero-Squirrel became tangled in a cottonwood tree in Spring Creek Canyon. As the balloon’s name suggests, its canopy resembles a giant squirrel.

Veteran pilot Roger Baldwin of Albuquerque, N.M., said a freakish burst of wind spun his balloon basket and robbed him of the ability to control his craft as he approached his intended landing zone. Instead, the Aero-Squirrel made an unplanned landing on a steeply pitched slope, then slid more than 50 feet before a tree stopped the basket from sliding into a small reservoir. The canopy of the balloon got caught in a larger tree.

The Routt County Sheriff’s Office and Routt County Search and Rescue responded to the scene. Neither Baldwin nor his only passenger, Bill Butler of Steamboat Springs, was hurt in the incident.

People on the scene initially thought they saw small rips in the canopy.

But Baldwin said the balloon canopy escaped without any tears, and by mid-afternoon, it had been untangled and re-inflated. He said people might have seen openings in the vent used to control the balloon’s descent. Baldwin was planning to fly again this morning.

Baldwin said that a friend of his contacted the Federal Aviation Administration on his behalf and learned that because there were no injuries and the balloon was undamaged, he would not have to file a report. He said he will report the unplanned landing to the Balloon Federation of America so other pilots can learn from it, and he expects to brief fellow pilots before this week’s Balloon Rodeo.

Baldwin and his wife, Kelly, were here last summer for their first visit to Steamboat’s balloon rodeo and flew a yellow balloon that resembles a baby duck.

Baldwin and Butler lifted off from the Meadows parking lot Tuesday morning and rode the breezes to the north. They had ample fuel, Baldwin said, when a west wind began nudging the balloon toward the mountains to the east of Steamboat, and they began considering landing sites.

His intention, Baldwin said, was to catch a river of cold air flowing down the Spring Creek drainage and land in a small park in the canyon.

To position the balloon in the invisible stream of air, Baldwin had to ascend to get over power lines that come down off Buffalo Pass.

As he settled the balloon into Spring Creek Canyon, Baldwin felt a sudden gust of wind blowing upstream, in the opposite direction.

“It spun the balloon basket seven times in less than a minute,” Baldwin said. “I’ve been flying since 1984, and that’s the first time I’ve been struck by a micro-burst or dust devil.”

While the balloon basket was spinning, the inflated canopy remained stable, he said. The result was that the opening in the bottom of the canopy closed down to a few inches in diameter, he said. Typically, when faced with a situation he wanted to exit quickly, Baldwin would have pulled on a handle above his shoulder to burn some propane and cause the balloon to ascend quickly.

With the entry to the balloon canopy effectively blocked, he didn’t have that option.

“It was like taking the steering wheel off a car,” Baldwin said. “That was a freak of Mother Nature.”

Realizing that he was going to come down on a steep, sagebrush and scrub oak-covered hillside, Baldwin reacted quickly to turn off the propane and his burner.

Butler, who also is a balloon pilot, recalled that, as more than a half-ton of balloon slid down the hill, his heart rate accelerated noticeably.

“Roger did a great job,” he said.

After the accident, the balloon and basket had to be removed from the canyon, which was a challenge in itself.

A group of bystanders joined the balloon crew, Undersheriff Dan Taylor and Search and Rescue members in the effort to get the balloon canopy out of the tree. A round of applause broke out when the canopy was flipped deftly off a jagged tree limb by Search and Rescue member Laurel Berry. Next came the hard work of hauling and pushing the 600-pound canopy up the steep embankment to Routt County Road 34.

The basket was carried out to the road.