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Sandy Journal

No balloons in the air, but Sandy Balloon Festival goes on

Sep 11, 2023 12:13PM ● By Heather Lawrence |

Ordinarily this field at Storm Mountain Park would be filled with about 15 hot air balloons, but the unstable weather meant no flights this year. (Heather Lawrence/City Journals)

Thousands of people gathered in the predawn hours for Sandy’s annual hot air balloon festival on Aug. 11 and 12, but the weather didn’t cooperate. Though things on the ground were calm and dry on Saturday, the seasoned balloon pilots were concerned about a storm cell visible above Little Cottonwood Canyon.   

The balloons were scheduled to lift off at 6:30 a.m. at Storm Mountain Park. Hopeful people set up their chairs and blankets on the grass and waited. 

“One of the best things to watch is those helium balloons that the kids have,” said balloon-meister Mike Bauwens of Kubicek Balloons. Bauwens has decades of balloon pilot experience and led a briefing at 6:45 a.m. with the 14 other pilots there. They’d been watching the weather forecast all night hoping the bad air would move out quickly.   

Bauwens and the other pilots had already spent hours checking forecast and radar systems. They were tracking a storm higher up in the atmosphere and watched as every balloon the kids let go of was pulled erratically up into the air. 

“Even on a clear day like today where it feels nice on the ground, we watch those little balloons in the air for an aberration. We watch how fast they travel and if they go in a straight line or get pulled in a zig-zag. As you go higher the air is unstable and unsafe,” Bauwens said. 

Another pilot, Lyle Bingham of Payson, was watching for the same thing. Bingham got interested in hot air balloons when his daughter, then 4 years old, saw one at a city event near their house. She made him promise to let her ride in one. Now she’s 36, and Bingham is the one giving rides to kids in his own hot air balloon.  

“The danger for going up when it’s unstable is that when you’re in a congested, crowded area like this, we’re limited on where we can land. In Sandy there are lots of houses and power lines. Then if the wind carries you farther, you are headed into controlled airspace,” Bingham said. 

Balloon pilot Dan Montgomery of West Jordan flies at the Sandy Festival every year. This year he brought several family members, including his 9-year-old grandson Carter, a balloon pilot in the making.  

Wearing safety gloves, Carter jumped in the basket, found the pilot light, and flipped the switches controlling the propane flame. He’d been excited to fly in the Sandy event for the first time. 

 “This would be my first time here, but I’ve been up in the balloon with my grandpa a hundred times. It’s so fun when you go up there and you’re just looking down on the people,” Carter said. An experienced flier, he knew that weather was a big factor is a safe ride.  

 “It’s too windy right now, we have to wait until it calms down a little,” he said. Watching a helium balloon go up, he gauged the speed. “Uh oh! That’s way too fast!” 

Montgomery pointed out virga, cloud trails of precipitation that fall from the underside of a storm cloud, but evaporate before they reach the ground.  

“The rain is evaporating before it hits the ground. There’s colder air hitting the ground and it makes a lot of wind. If this blows over and the atmosphere cleans up, possibly we could still fly, but right now I’d say it’s unlikely,” Montgomery said. 

Unfortunately, he was right. The balloons never did launch on Saturday morning, nor did the pilots get to do the tethered up-and-down rides the kids come for. 

The rest of the day’s events continued as planned. Sandy City hosted a Glow event at the promenade near city hall Saturday evening. The event featured food trucks, a DJ and a drone light show. Many of the balloon pilots came back, too. 

Montgomery was disappointed the balloons couldn’t fly that day, but he took it in the stride of an experienced pilot. 

“You’d rather be down here wanting to be up there, than up there wanting to be down here,” Montgomery said. “I’ve been on both ends of it, and it’s better to be safe.” λ