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Hot air affair improving Increased parking; downed balloon under investigation
September 09, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis

Nathan Flowers/Spectrum Photography On the final night of the Old West Balloon Fest on Sunday, pilots with their fire breathing contraptions light up the sky during the night glow at the Western Nebraska Regional Airport.

For the second straight year of the event’s revival, and this time over two days, the Old West Balloon Fest was indeed a feast for the eyes. Though there was one minor mishap.

One of the 19 balloons at the fest hit a power line northeast of Morrill at about 8:30 a.m. on September 4. The incident on the south side of County Road A, between county roads 10 and 11 brought first responders from the Scotts Bluff County Sheriff’s Office, Morrill Fire Department, the Village of Morrill Electrical Department, Roosevelt Public Power District and balloon festival organizers. Pilot Royce Clapp of McCook, Nebraska, reported his balloon “Good Morning Sunshine,” which landed about 6.5 miles northwest of the Mitchell airport launch site, suffered minor damage.

Event balloonmeister Colleen Johnson issued a statement saying Clapp and two passengers were uninjured. The statement read: “Our pilots are very experienced and we have teams on hand to make sure conditions are safe for our pilots, crew, passengers and spectators. Unfortunately, there are times when even a small change in winds can cause minor deviations in a landing or takeoff.”

The county sheriff’s office interviewed Clapp, his passengers, and witnesses. For now, the incident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Despite the incident with Clapp’s balloon going down, organizers otherwise expressed optimism about the powerful draw of the event.

Old West Balloon Fest Co-Chair Brenda Leisy described the Labor Day weekend event as “absolutely fantastic.”

A second launch day was added to this year’s schedule, and pilots took advantage, launching both days from the old Mitchell airport.

In 2015, when an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people came out to see the balloons, the large volume of traffic posed a few problems. “We made a lot of improvements from last year,” Leisy said. “The parking was a much better situation and we were much more organized at the launch site.”

One road out to the field led to miles of backed up traffic. In addressing the problem during winter, the county helped build a second entryway, while expanding the parking lot to hold more vehicles.

Balloon pilot Mark Purdy of Eaton, Colorado, (about 45 minutes south of Cheyenne, Wyoming) enjoyed the turnout. A 19-year ballooning veteran, he said, “I’ve heard from other pilots your area is good for flying when the weather cooperates, which it did. I live in an agricultural area, so flying is much the same.”

Purdy said he was impressed by the local support, remarking how the fest staff had been accommodating the entire event. “The crew they assigned to me was the best I’d seen anywhere in my years of flying, so I’ll be coming back.”

Adding to the positive feedback, two days after the event, Leisy said some of the pilots reported on social media how well they were treated and how they love coming here.

Organizing the annual Old West Balloon Fest is a major undertaking, and involved a lot of moving parts, including a family-fun weekend themed coloring contest for a group of local elementary students. Balloon Fest organizers asked kids in grades 3-5 to let their imaginations soar and color an image of the balloon festival. The result was more than 1,000 colorful entries.

“Needless to say, we were blown away by the creativity and passion in the contest entries submitted to us,” said Coloring Contest Chair Tricia Strauch. “There is no doubt that the kids in our area are very excited about this community-wide festival.”

Northfield Elementary fifth grader Mitch Moravec, who was named the grand prize winner, attended a meet-and-greet on Friday. Culminating a fun-filled weekend, he found himself a passenger in the Humpty Dumpty balloon early Sunday morning.

Other winners of the coloring contest included third grade division winner Holden Lerwick of Banner County; and fourth grade winner Joslyn Darnell of Mitchell Elementary.

At the conclusion of the balloon fest, a balloon night glow at the Western Nebraska Regional Airport drew an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 fest-goers.

The celebration included food vendors, a kids’ zone, live entertainment and a ceremony to honor law enforcement officers in recognition of their service and commitment in protecting their communities.

Traffic lined Highland Road from the airport back into Scottsbluff. Skyport Road, one of backroads into the airport grounds, was also lined with cars. Scores of volunteers did an excellent job in helping direct traffic and getting cars to the parking area.

“We continually try to improve the event and improve areas where we see weaknesses,” Leisy said. “We’ll keep working on it, includ
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