Conditions looked ideal – cool and calm, with plenty of blue skies – as the early morning dawn peaked over the ridge, revealing the outlines of the lower Yakima Valley.
That’s how pilot Dawne Rushkarski likes it.
“Were excited. We love to fly,” she said, preparing the necessary equipment to inflate her 90,000 cubic foot hot air balloon.
Hundreds of people turned out just before dawn on Friday at Prosser Airport to watch the hot air balloon pilots take off on the first day of the Great Prosser Balloon Rally.
The 33rd annual event attracted 17 balloons in fanciful colours. Two more sunrise launches will take place on Saturday and Sunday, and the weather should be favorable for takeoff.
The event is free and family friendly. Spectators are encouraged to bring a lawn chair and arrive at 6:15 a.m. to get closer to the balloons.
“It’s a really cool experience to be right next to them and see what they look like,” said event vice president Morgan Everett.
Rushkarski is a professional pilot who has been flying balloons since 1996. On days when she isn’t flying hundreds of feet in the air in her wicker balloons, she works in telecommunications.
From the age of 9, she knew she wanted to become a hot air balloon pilot. She is a firm believer in the motto: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
“I was driving with my parents and saw a balloon land,” said Rushkarski, 52, of Monroe, who pilots the black and rainbow balloon Fired Up. “I have a huge soft spot for children and I inspire a love of aviation.”
This single event changed everything. Soon after, she was begging her parents to go to hot air balloon shows.
“I just think they are gentle giants. They are colorful, they are peaceful,” she said.
“It’s going to be a good weekend to ride a balloon, I’ll tell you,” National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Lawhorn told Pendleton. “We are looking at light winds throughout the weekend. And by light, I mean less than 10 mph.
Saturday and Sunday mornings will be chilly, with temperatures hovering around 50 degrees when the balloons take off. Afternoons will be in the upper 70s to lower 80s.
Throw, pat the river
From their trailer to the sky above, it only took Rushkarski about 20 minutes to get his wings. With 38 gallons of liquid propane and a burner, Fired Up was on.
Rushkarski brought his 12-year-old son, Alexander, for his first ride in about eight years. It’s better to be in school, but what’s his favorite part of flying?
“I’m coming down,” he said.
“He’s actually a great flight crew member,” his mother said.
Hot air balloons like Rushkarski’s can soar up to 4,000 or 5,000 feet high. But 1,200 feet — about the height of four football fields — is its sweet spot.
Dozens of kayakers took to the Yakima River to watch the balloons “splash and soar” – a short landing on the surface of the water that wets your socks.
McKenna Secrist, 21, of Bothel, who flies the Climb to Safety balloon, was the first to do so on Friday. Rushkarski, who helped her become a balloon pilot, shouted excitedly.
“Racing is all about precision for us. It’s not about who gets there first,” Rushkarski said. “I once landed in the back of a van. The driver stopped me. Everyone wanted a picture of her in the back of a van.
The balloon pilots are at the whim of the wind. There’s no flywheel – just a trigger that expends propane through a burner, providing hot air for the balloon’s lift.
So landing spots can be tricky. The main rule is to avoid power lines and roads.
And if you land in someone’s garden, Rushkarski said it’s tradition to come with gifts. Specifically, wine or champagne.
After an hour in the air and about 3 miles flown, the veteran pilot chose a nearby brushy field 14 Hand Cellar to land Friday morning.
With a slow descent and a firm thud, Fired Up and its passengers were back on solid ground.
“That’s how you land a ball,” she exclaimed.
The glow of the night
A balloon night glow is scheduled for dusk Saturday at the Art Fiker Stadium, 1433 Paterson Rd.
Balloon pilots will light their burners in a show set to music with synchronized lighting from the captive balloons.
Doors open at 6 p.m. Seats in the bleachers are free.