By Mary Spicer
There’s evidence that balloon-friendly weather may be on the way, but it won’t arrive quite soon enough for tonight’s scheduled opening flight of the 25th Thurston Classic Hot Air Balloon Event — the maiden flight of a newly-constructed gas balloon.
Tonight’s inflation and flight has been postponed.
Weather permitting, of course, plans now call for the Thurston to kick off with its ever-popular Night Glow on Thursday night and proceed with flights as scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Pea-Nut, the hot air balloon in the shape of a joyful elephant, is expected to appear as scheduled.
In addition, no one is abandoning hope that the 2013 Thurston will be the site of the first flight of a balloon on the cutting edge of what aficionados regard as the long-overdue revival of gas ballooning in America.
“We plan to either do an inflation Friday evening — although it may be a little breezy — or Saturday, when the weather looks gorgeous,” Bert Padelt, a gas and hot air balloon legend in his own right, told the Tribune on Tuesday. Padelt, owner of Best Aviation Services of Bally, built the gas balloon, which was recently certified for flight by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The balloon is owned by the North Carolina chapter of the Aero Club of America, an organization believed to be the first gas balloon club to be formed in the United States in several decades. In addition to Padelt, Ted Watts Sr., chair of the Thurston’s Operations Committee, is a founding member of the club.
The first flight of the yet-to-be-named balloon has been timed as a tribute to Meadville’s gas balloon pioneers, Sam Thurston and his son Alic, from whom Meadville’s annual event takes its name. “There’s a lot of symbolism for us,” Watts said Tuesday.
Meadville’s involvement with gas balloons dates back to 1860, when innkeeper Samuel Sylvester Thurston, proprietor of the fashionable Crawford House Hotel at the south end of Diamond Park, was so inspired by a noted balloonist staying at the hotel that he immediately bought a balloon and convinced his guest to stay in Meadville long enough to teach him how to fly it. By the time he retired in 1885, Meadville’ ballooning pioneer had made 215 ascensions. Although Sam’s son Alic had never ridden in a balloon with his father, he took up ballooning himself in 1889, completing his most famous balloon, the 35,000 cubic-foot Meadville, in 1908.
When inflated, the gas balloon expected to make its debut this weekend holds 24,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas.
“We really want to see the flight go,” Watts said. “We’re trying to revitalize gas ballooning in the United States — this will be a first for that. A lot of people in gas ballooning recognize that this is an historic event.”
Weather, weather everywhere
Although weather is always an issue when lighter-than-air flight is involved, it’s even more so for gas balloons, which are traditionally inflated with either hydrogen or helium.
With hot air balloons, the only “gas” involved is propane, which is used to fuel the burner that flares from time to time, keeping the air trapped inside the balloon “envelope” heated to a temperature that makes it lighter than the surrounding outside air. If the burner isn’t on, no gas is being used. The maximum duration of a hot air flight — usually about 2.5 hours — is determined by the amount of propane on board; flying for about an hour costs approximately $50 to $75 for fuel.
At the Thurston, which features more than 30 hot-air balloons, weather that is less than perfect can be accommodated.
“Sometimes,” Watts said, “we do short hops where we launch them for the sake of letting the crowd see them fly off.”
However, hydrogen balloons have to be completely filled with gas before each takeoff, eliminating the possibility of short, relatively inexpensive flights.
“When you spend a thousand dollars or so on hydrogen,” Watts said, “you don’t just want to pop the thing over the tree line and set it down, so you’re looking at a longer-term flight. You’re looking at three to four hours — or maybe overnight.”
In addition to the cost of the gas, longer flights mean that a greater distance will be covered, which in turn means that weather conditions over a much wider area must be taken into consideration.
“We have a meteorologist consulting with us on the gas balloon launch,” Watts said. “It’s much more complicated than a usual launch.”
If all goes as planned — and the weather cooperates — Padelt hopes to inflate the gas balloon during the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, leave it standing on the ground for people to check out and then launch around 8 a.m.
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.