Flying high at Scottsbluff’s Old West Balloon Fest

Western Spirit balloon flying above train
Western Spirit passes over a Union Pacific train as Lisa enjoys her maiden hot air balloon ride. Photo by Andrew Smith, Adventure Photography

As Western Spirit rose from the ground, Lisa’s smile was as broad as the sky. On her first hot air balloon ride, she barely hid her excitement. The Old West Balloon Fest brings out the kid in almost everyone who visits the Scottsbluff event.

Hosted in early August, the Old West Balloon Fest runs five days, beginning with a night glow at Western Nebraska Community College on Wednesday. A dozen or so balloon pilots and their teams set up on the school’s grounds and fill the balloons as though they’re going to fly but hold them steady. Blasting balloons with bursts of propane, the balloons illuminate randomly, creating a colorful view in the darkness.

Balloon crews fill the grounds at the Old Mitchell Airfield on Friday and Saturday morning, preparing for morning ascension, when vehicles of varying shapes, sizes, and colors take to the western sky. Thursday morning is set aside for media flights, provided the wind cooperates. This time, expected wind gusts grounded the balloons. Lisa wouldn’t fly that day.

Yellow flag, pilots take warning

With Lisa scheduled to fly with the Western Spirit team the next day, we were up long before the sun had its first cup of coffee. Leaving the Airbnb, we made the 15-minute drive with nary a car on the road that early. Then, we saw dozens of headlights all in a row, waiting to be assigned parking spots.

As Lisa checked in for her flight, she overheard pilots discussing a flight delay. At 6 a.m., the yellow caution flag was posted on the emcee’s stage, officially announcing a delay in the morning’s mass ascension because of strong winds. A little over an hour later, flights were scrubbed for the day, with the yellow flag surrendering to a white one, signifying flights were canceled.

Later that day, Lisa received a message that she would fly with Western Spirit on Saturday. If that flight had been scrapped, her goal of fulfilling the 5th Dimension’s dream of going up, up and away in her beautiful balloon would have frittered away.

Flight redux

Again, arriving at Old Mitchell Field long before sunrise – and four cups of coffee down – the yellow flag was posted on the main stage. But, at about 7 a.m., people applauded and cheered as the green flag was posted, quietly announcing balloon launches.

Crew person is preparing hot air balloon to be inflated.
A crew member helps prep a hot air balloon for flight at the Old West Balloon Fest.

David Eichorn, who flew almost 50 aircraft during his Air Force career, became interested in hot air balloons during an assignment at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It seemed natural that he’d buy his first balloon there since Albuquerque is home to the International Balloon Fiesta, the largest balloon event in the United States.

Eichorn, who owns ten hot air balloons, wasn’t initially interested in purchasing Western Spirit. But he changed his mind and is now the proud owner of one of only three hand-painted hot air balloons in the country.

Balloon pilot prepares basket for launch.
David Eichorn checks the basket for flight readiness before taking Lisa on her maiden flight on a hot air balloon.

It seemed fitting that Lisa’s balloon flight was on Western Spirit since we were attending the Old West Balloon Fest.

Safe landing

With about ten balloons in the air before them, the Western Spirit duo launched and flew for about 45 minutes before Eichorn set down on a small patch of grass near a cornfield. During the flight, they could see vehicles lining the roadside, watching in amazement as the balloons flew overhead.

Hot air balloons flying in the sky
Western Spirit is among the hot air balloons dotting Nebraska’s western sky.

Driving with one of the chase crew – a team that follows the balloon until it lands and then helps pack it in a truck – I learned of the love people have for the culture of hot air balloons.

The Old West Balloon Fest, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2024 after being resurrected as its own event, includes activities such as a community market and wiener dog races.

Block Red N made by drones
A drone show added a Nebraska theme to the Old West Balloon Fest.

The balloon festival capped a fun time with a Saturday night balloon glow at Five Rocks Amphitheater in Gering, featuring live music and plenty of food. New to the festival, 100 drones entertained the crowd, forming Nebraska-themed items, such as an ear of corn and balloons. And the iconic red N for the University of Nebraska football team made an appearance.

While Lisa’s first hot air balloon flight may have been the crowning event for her, the Old West Balloon Fest again showed why it’s Nebraska’s top hot air balloon celebration and should be on everyone’s bucket list.